Peaceful Resisters

Red Poppy

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by Susan McCaslin

I feel like I’ve always been a Peacenik. Recently, I noticed that my book of essays, Arousing the Spirit, contains no less than three essays on peace, so you could say “peace-making” is a sub-theme of this book about the mystical way.

Though I was born with the same propensities for violence as anyone else, my parents’ constant fights and screaming matches compelled me at an early age to long for peace.

Although I think it likely that if my physical person, or a member of my family, or even my beloved dog were attacked by an assailant I would go into physical defense mode, this hasn’t happened yet.

My dad was a World War II veteran who served overseas just after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. He was immensely patriotic, so when I began marching against the Vietnam War in the 60’s, he told me he’d never go see a Jane Fonda movie again because she was a traitor protesting against the war.

However, my dad was also progressive in his concern for the poor and disenfranchised and said he respected me and my generation for our ideals, though he disagreed. He commended me for “running against the wind.” I always felt I had his love and support, even when we disagreed.

When dad died, my brother and I followed his precise instructions to place a small American flag in his pocket. I’m proud of dad for risking his life and believe there are occasions when we must reluctantly resort to force to protect the innocent, as in the opposition to Hitler or the Rwandan genocide.

That said, I have to admit I often feel ambivalent on Remembrance Day. After World War I (“the war to end all wars”), Remembrance Day was seen by many as a time to critique war as a way of resolving disputes. When World War II followed shortly thereafter, many became cynical about the peace efforts that led to the League of Nations.

While it’s important to honour those who suffered and died in wars, all too often the honouring of the dead slides into a glorification of war, a glossing over of war’s brutality and the cycles of violence it fuels. This year, much of the coverage on the CBC seemed to me like pro-war propaganda for strengthening the Canadian military.

So this year I searched in vain for a white poppy that would convey my desire to remember Canadian losses, and the losses on all sides, in order to end war. At last I found a lapel pin at a progressive Mennonite church that announced: “To remember is to work for peace.” I wore it proudly.

Night after night over the past weeks, we turn on the TV and witness devastating scenes of violence in Syria, Israel, and the Gaza. Each group believes their acts of violence, often against innocent children and civilians, are justified because their particular war is self-defence and therefore a “just war.”  But Vietnamese poet-activist Thich Nhat Hanh has a point when he says, “I do not accept the concept of a war for peace, a ‘just war,’ as I also cannot accept the concept of ‘just slavery,’ ‘just hatred,’ or ‘just racism’” (from Creating True Peace). Ideologically, our wars may seem just, but they are never “just” to the innocent victims on both sides, the soldiers who return with post traumatic stress disorder, and society that learns to tolerate and support continuous warfare.

Those who wish to defend the use of violence, often drag out the “just war” concept as their clinching argument. For instance, when I posted something about my ambivalence about Remembrance Day on Facebook, an angry respondent countered that to talk of “waging peace” is naïve. “Oh yeah, I bet you’d fight back if your child or your own life was endangered.

Yeah, deep down you’re not that peaceful. You’re just as violent as the rest of us.” There’s a kind of gleeful disdain for the ideals of the Peacenik, as if we are still a tribe of hippies proffering nothing but flowers.

My dad used to present me with what I call the “High Noon” argument. In this classic western starring Grace Kelly and dad’s favourite actor hero, Gary Cooper, a decent, honest sheriff in a western town is about to marry a lovely peaceful Quaker woman.

Unfortunately, Gary has to put on his badge and fight off a group of thugs who are coming to kill him and terrorize the town. No one else will help him, so he kills them almost single-handedly. In the end, his pacifist wife guns down the final gangster to save her fiancée’s life.

“See,” Dad would say. “Even a nice Quaker woman will stand up for her man and kill when the chips are down.” Sure Dad. But what bothers me still is that this cowboy scenario is applied again and again in situations that aren’t analogous.

Think of Iraq and the fictitious “weapons of mass destruction,” or Afghanistan, where the situation was considerably more complex than in an American western. Groups seize on the “just war” claim to justify their positions and then dig into their trenches.

Israelis say violence is justified since the Palestinians are terrorists, yet ignore their own long-term oppression of Palestine. In the end, both sides are irrationally killing innocent civilians in the name of justice.

People revere leaders like Jesus, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, but their views and strategies are viewed as unrealistic.  Yet psychological studies show that people will avoid killing if they can, and that humans prefer peace to war. I believe the desire to live peacefully is more deeply rooted in the human species than the love of violence.

So in my post-Remembrance Day mode, I’m considering how we use the “just war” model to justify unholy, unjust wars. I’m thinking about how we slide all too easily into the default position of violence without first exhausting every possible means of working things out in more creative ways.

In the end, war is a failure of imagination.

As Leonard Cohen puts it, “Love’s the only engine of survival.”

Susan McCaslin is a prize-winning poet and author of eleven volumes of poetry. Susan is Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years. Her most recent volume of poetry, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011), has recently been named a finalist for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award). She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Visit her website at

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Categories: Featured, Healing and Wellness, Peace, Peace, Justice, and Equality, Susan McCaslin, World


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4 Comments on “Peaceful Resisters”

  1. Leslie
    November 22, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    I am glad to read a thoughtful peace on Remembrance Day and on the default position that waging war so often seems to be. How strange to see General Petraeus pilloried for an extra-marital affair when he supervised campaigns that killed and maimed thousands of civilians and soldiers in two unnecessary, extended wars: what values are we living by? One issue is none of our business, and the other is everyone’s business, but somehow the this is reversed.

    I too believe some wars are ‘just,’ but I also celebrate the examples of those who wage peace for decades to bring democracy, or the beginnings of democracy, to their countries, like in Burma/Myanmar. There the Buddhist democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, responding to a question about whether she would like to lead her country, said she would like to do so “only if I can do it right.”

    What gives me hope is both events appeared in daily newspapers.

  2. November 23, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    I share your heartfelt ambiguity about Remembrance Day, about turning “honouring those who died for us” into glorifying war. I also share your relief at finding the white poppy! Thanks for articulating this so clearly.

  3. Ron Dart
    November 24, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    the finest of songs from the soul of a dove in full flight—do sing yet more

  4. November 25, 2012 at 5:38 am #

    Thanks, friends. With things in the Middle East tuning up again, we need more than ever to use our collecive imaginations to work for peace.

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