Unlearning war

May 22, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

I was walking through my university campus a few weeks ago, when I noticed something rather chilling. The campus is littered with war memorials, honouring the dead Canadian soldiers of the twentieth-century, like the one pictured (found here) – that’s unsettling enough. But one wall of plaques, I noticed, contained several extra spaces, presumably carved in preparation for (or was it in anticipation of?) future wars. It struck me not only as a morbid thing to do, but also as a reflection of the way our country functions: war is thought of as a reality, past, present, and future, and to prepare for it is simply realistic (do I really need to remind you of the billions of dollars we’re pouring into the new fighter jets and other war-toys?). I think that all of this supposedly “realistic” preparation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, though. By leaving, or actually deliberately creating, extra spaces for dead soldiers’ names, whoever commissioned and carved that wall was in effect wishing and planning for there to be more dead people to tally up. It’s one way among others that we stunt our own imaginations when it comes to dealing with conflict, so that any efforts to deal with conflict nonviolently and to work toward lasting peace are shut down before they even have a chance to start.

It got me thinking about the way that war works these days, and reminded me of something one of my profs alerted me to last year. As you know, we don’t have conscription or the draft in this country, and we generally consider this a good thing; nobody is being forced to join the military, we assume. Plus, we pacifists and advocates of nonviolent resistance don’t have to go through laborious processes to declare Conscientious Objector status. Everybody wins! But of course, that’s just not true; we tend to overlook the fact that this means that mainly those who really need a job, i.e., people of lower income, join the armed forces. So, they’re the ones we send off to fight our (largely ideological) battles – and of course, the ones who come back in wooden boxes. As terrifying as the prospect of the draft is (something brought home to me in the Theatre of the Beat’s play, Gadfly: Sam Steiner Dodges the Draft, which I had the privilege of seeing last week), at least there was a kind of equality to it, so that it wasn’t just people of one income bracket being sent off to fight and kill and die.

Of course, there’s another aspect of how the military works today, one that’s pretty close to my heart as an academic. The armed forces, you see, will pay university tuition in certain areas for those who join up, meaning that at least a segment of those who have joined mainly want to get an education, and for that they place their very lives in the hands of our increasingly war-focused government. Unable to afford tuition by other means, people are being roped into the brutal cycle of violence, destruction, trauma, and death that is war. This is nothing if not injustice. So, what on earth are we going to do about it?

Something fairly simple came to my mind: the establishment of scholarships. If it’s a matter of the unaffordability of university for many these days which is driving unwilling people into the military, then why don’t those with the means (and the peace convictions) give them a different option, a way out? It makes sense to me as one way to put the money withheld from military taxes to good use, if you practice that form of conscientious objection (which I have deep admiration for). In other words, I’m proposing that scholarships keep people out of the military. Scholarships have the potential to ensure that terrible memorial wall on my university campus remains blank. Instead, people could then join the university, an institution that is, at least potentially, drastically more nurturing, constructive, creative, and life-giving, in that it fosters the proliferation of ideas instead of thoughtless obedience; at its best, it opens the mind instead of closing it. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues in this book, the university is also much more conducive to peace (he calls it “one of the forms peace takes”), since problems are addressed nonviolently, through dialogue and the sharing of ideas; that is, the academy creates an atmosphere in which debates are conducted and settled with the pen, not the sword. What I’m saying is that in teaching peace, we can contribute to the unlearning of war. Investing in universities, then, is quite directly tied to countering the rising militarism in our country, but, I would add, only if we are inclusive about it, offering scholarships also to those beyond our own circles, even to strangers, especially those who need it most.

So, maybe we can add this to the list of ways we Mennonites work against war and for peace, alongside development and economic redistribution, mediation and conflict transformation, objection to military taxes, letter-writing and petitions, support for war resisters and conscientious objectors, peace education for all ages, the fostering of forgiveness, the forming of communities of peace, etc. It can be one more way of living out our calling as people of God’s peace. In this way, alongside all of these efforts, we can let it be one more strand of our hope that, as Isaiah foretold so long ago, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).

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