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Getting Started in Pacifism:\\
The Practical Why,\\
The Practical How 

Toomas (Tom) Karmo\\


\copyright Toomas Karmo 2006


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\startsectionfont{Why does peacework make practical sense?} The
great triumph of peace in our own generation is the dismantling
of European communism over the years 1987--1991, in a sequence
of events that most Western observers as recently as 1985 would
have dismissed as a Hollywood
fantasy. Today's Eastern European 
peace did not come from guns, uniforms, or the expensive
overflight displays of jet fighters we have lately been
seeing in Toronto. Its roots lay, rather, in the
fearless expression of dissenting political opinion by 
citizens, massing in the streets by their hundreds of thousands. 

This European story I know in part from the inside, having been
an Estonian-exile volunteer for a tiny diaspora
organization, the `Relief Centre for
Estonian Prisoners of Conscience in the USSR'. 
(I was born in exile
in Canada in 1953. My gainful daytime
employment over the period of this volunteering, 
from around 1986 until the 1991 dismantling of the USSR,
was successively in Singapore, the United States, and Canada.) 
My half-sister in Tartu, back home in
Estonia, was for her part among the marching, singing---and
ultimately triumphant---hundreds of thousands. 

Analysis of our European experience reveals that
it owed little to the actions of the Western military, who may
indeed have been ill-informed regarding political realities on
the ground. Here is a 
telling illustration. When, shortly before the 1987 February 24 Tallinn
pro-independence demonstrations at the Tammsaare monument, I
took the precaution of phoning the USA State Department, the
lady who processed my call
went so far as
to ask, in her good-natured fumbling, `How do you spell
``Tammsaare''?' And I believe she was no mere clerical assistant
but a professional analyst at the fully appropriate regional 
``desk'' within that sprawling Washington bureau!

There is still a tendency in some circles to
attribute glasnost and perestroika to the ruinously expensive
military spending forced on the USSR by President Ronald Reagan in
Washington and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London, 
as a flow-on from America's gigantic ``Star Wars'' initiative. 
Here I can only say that from the
street perspective, as far as I can today make it out---I am
happy to be corrected, if need be, by competent foreign-affairs
specialists---the roots of
glasnost and perestroika lay elsewhere. The real roots, 
as far as I can make out, 
lay in an occasionally faltering, 
but in the end adequately clear, 
perception within First Secretary~Mikhael 
S.~Gorbachev's Kremlin that the Communist Party of the USSR 
had reached a dead end. I recall here the prophetic
words of a Polish social scientist, Kolakowski, whom I heard at
Oxford in the academic year 1974--1975: already back then, 
the greying Kolakowski electrified us, his youthful 
audience, with the pronouncement
that communism had ceased to be credible in the Soviet bloc, 
even---this was crucial---within the bloc's own ruling strata. 

If the peaceful dismantling of communism in our own generation
demonstrates the practicality of pacifism, then the futility and
ruin of war is, by contrast, demonstrated in the experience of
the previous generation, in other words of my parents and aunts
and uncles and family friends, between 1939 and 1945. 

I hope I will be believed when I write here that my Dad,
my Mum, my two Grandmas, my
additional close relatives, and the people
they knew saw every conceivable thing, in the very proportions and
scale of today's Iraq, right down to the hand hanging in a
tree in Dresden (hands come off in the moments
of ``shock and awe'', when the people in the planes 
drop the bombs onto the terrorized streets), right down 
to the human genitals in the Red soldier's lunch 
pail at the
battlefront near starving Leningrad.  

Canadian experiences of
war are coloured by happy images from the 
1944--1945 liberation of the
Netherlands. But here I plead with you to consider,
for a moment, the contrasting position in the
east of Europe, where the war served only to consolidate
Stalin's system for a further ruinous forty-five years.
I plead with you also to consider one of the lessons of the
Holocaust, namely, that all the forces of the D-Day armada were
powerless to save the six million gassed and shot in Hitler's death
camps. Those camps, too, are part of the bitter 
legacy I and my family carry with
us, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year until
we die: although my family 
and immediate family friends were touched comparatively  
lightly by their various 
ill-judged involvements with the Dritte Reich, 
I know easily twenty or thirty people who for their part had a degree of
social intimacy, from the 1950s right into the 1980s, with a sometime 
Dritte Reich
concentration-camp officer.  And, switching for a moment
from the European to the Far-Eastern theatre,
I plead with you to consider
the plight of China (and Tibet), labouring to this day
under a Stalinist system assisted in its rise to power 
by the World War~II Pacific operations.  

War is the most far-reaching form of terrorism known
to humanity. War is the specific terrorism that begets and
nurtures, even to the third and fifth and seventh human
generation, the other terrorisms tormenting us. What were
Hitler and Stalin if not the bitter double fruit
of World War~I, the so-called ``Great War'', the so-called
``war to end all wars''? What is the Middle Eastern situation
now---with the Iraqi dead explicitly 
admitted by President George W.~Bush 
to number in excess of
thirty thousand, with the Iraqi dead estimated by peer-reviewed medical
writers in {\it The Lancet} many months ago to run already into six
figures, and with Iran for its part
now said to call for Israel to be ``wiped off the
map'', in English words that are a mistranslation of the
significantly less bellicose Persian original---what 
is this tangled twenty-first-century Middle
Eastern situation if not, once again, 
the toxic residue of World War~I, of that ``war to end all wars''? 

And if we see nuclear weapons
detonated in this decade, whether by governments or by lone
guerrillas, what will such detonations be if not the next stage
in a militaristic perversion of science first unveiled by Harry
Truman's incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? 
What clearer
demonstration than those 1945 nukes, 
with their looming twenty-first century sequelae, 
can there be of the eternal truth, already evident 
to Sophocles and Euripides, and to the politically dissident 
Hebrew prophets (the Solzhenitsyns of their own day), 
that violence spawns larger and cleverer forms 
of violence?
\startsectionfont{We are thus led to consider
what peacework} we can ourselves now undertake. Symbols
do matter, though they merely hint at the inward essence of our
situation. We already make a contribution by refusing to wear
the colour of blood on our clothing on November~11, displaying
in place of the government's blood-red poppy a white peace sign. 

But to reach the essence, we have to realize that peace
starts from within, in our ideas and emotions. We will not have
peace until we are able to contemplate our soldiers with
an accurate and clear-eyed sympathy, without preaching, without
condemnation, even in the midst of our clear-eyed rejection of
the politicians whom the soldiers are so inappropriately 
sworn to obey.  

One way to begin this task of contemplation is to listen,
sympathetically and carefully (as I have indeed done, at 
Catholic Worker dinner table) 
to some of the American military deserters now 
in Canada. Our job is to understand how for a young American,
military training presents itself as the only way out of a
hopeless socioeconomic situation, as the only realistic route to
an affordable university education. Specifically, we must 
recall how in the United States, 
your university degree, if it is not funded by the military, is
liable to cost you tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition

Although conditions are not so dire in Canada, we must 
consider the Canadian soldier's 
position sympathetically, too---recalling 
on the one hand the struggle for a professional education, 
on the other hand the glow of an uncritical patriotism 
continually pushed at our impressionable young adults by 
television, by the endless torrent of 
military coffee-table books at Indigo,
by the militarized displays at the Canadian National
Exhibition, and by the pomp at our expensive new
war memorials. It is these two forces jointly, we must
recall, that induce
young Canadians to join our own forces, and we 
must continually recall that we would have been likely
to have done the same had we been in their precise, unhappy,
circumstances. Our job is not to
condemn but to understand.

What, in the most general terms,
is our proper attitude to the soldiery, be they 
Americans in 2004 Abu Ghraib or Americans
in 1944 Normandy, be they contemporary Israelis or 
contemporary Hezbollah, 
be they contemporary Canadians or contemporary Taliban? 
I answer a little obliquely, with an anecdote. 
You will find the message of the anecdote I am about to relate
unexpected, cheerful, almost humorous. You will find it a 
message of hope. 

My late maternal grandmother, Ekaterina Ranne, born in Estonia
in 1892,
was as a young wife brought in the most immediate and physical
sense face to face with one of the first great terrors of our
time. The year was, I suspect, 1918 or 1919 or 1920. Vladimir
Ilyich Lenin, having assumed power in the Petrograd
putsch of 1917~November~6, was now seeking to consolidate his
Bolshevik despotism through civil war. Grandma was at the time
in a village in Ukraine with her young husband, seeking to
escape famine.

For a while, her village of temporary refuge was in the hands of
Mensheviks. Then something happened---I presume that some guys
fired guns at some other bunch of guys---and the village changed
hands. A soldier, one of the incoming Bolsheviks, who must by
now have become accustomed to the idea of shooting people for
politics, banged on Grandma's door. `Woman,' he said, `our army
is feeding. Give us spoons.' To this Grandma said, `Spoons? What
do you mean, spoons? The only spoons we have in this house are
silver coffee spoons, and we are not handing those out to
Bolsheviks.' The gun-toter apologized, as of course he had to
apologize, and he went on to the next house.

The anecdote has been told in our family as an illustration of
our dear
Grandma's very occasional naivet\'{e}. 
But I, for my part, say that
she saw things the way the Dorothy Days and the Mahatma Gandhis
of this world do, and as we
indeed \textit{must} see 
them if the cycle of violence is to be ended in
the Middle East and Afghanistan even as 
the massed citizenry (supported as they were
by the pragmatic de facto 
pacifism of Gorbachev, and still more significantly
by the pacifist vision of a Polish Pope)
successfully ended it in
1980s Eastern Europe. For Grandma, and also for that
poor Bolshevik soldier with whom Grandma 
in her vulnerability successfully pleaded or
reasoned, people count for more than politics.

Grandma's viewpoint, perhaps in a particular way her 
openness and vulnerability, carried her safely through the
Russian civil
war. It carried her also through the still more terrible trials
of World War II, which saw Estonia occupied
both by Soviets and by Nazis.

What in the end happened to Grandma, you ask? She lived a long,
happy, productive life, greatly enjoying her decades in Canadian
exile, departing this world in 1992 half a year short of her
hundredth birthday. 

There is a message for us all in this. It is, as I say, a message
of hope. I no more have answers to our current
problems---Afghanistan, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah---than Grandma
had answers to Lenin. But I know that answers exist somewhere,
and I know that when those answers are found, 
they will be deeper, subtler, than the
easy pseudo-answers that come with uniforms and guns. 
I'm going to keep looking until I find those
answers, and so are you!