On Pacifism

The pitch from the publicist came by surprise, alerting me to a new book about pacifists and their struggles during WW2 and how resisting the “good war” shaped later efforts during the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam movement. “That’s my grandad,” I said, and quickly sent off a pitch to an editor at the newly renovated Book World section at The Washington Post. We paired the review of War By Other Means with Mercy, a book about people in war who choose not to kill or who try to help. You can read it here!

I was eager to do this writing for two reasons. First, the war in Ukraine is still broadly seen (in the US) as a just war, a good war, a defensive war against the aggression of Russia. It’s the first “good war” of my life, frankly, excepting maybe the initial invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, which had huge support across all aspects of US Society. I find my inner monologue hoping for Ukranian victories on the battlefield at odds with my desire to promote peace – not that I’m a pacifist; but I’d love to have that kind of moral clarity.

Second, when my dad died, David Hollinger (a well known historian and someone my dad worked with at Buffalo early in both their careers, raising their kids together, etc.), wrote (among other things), “Lew was a wonderfully conscientious, responsive friend, always sensitive to what was going on around him and what were the needs and interests of his friends. He and I were part of an unusual group of US intellectual historians who had been conscientious objectors…Lew was a very special man, and it was a privilege to be his friend.” David and I went on to discuss in email the varying faith traditions that he, my dad, and the others he mentioned came from (a variety of Christian traditions in this case). I think there’s likely some intellectual history to be done on intellectual historians who were COs (conscientious objectors).

Also my dad always told me that he wanted to write about the “greatest generation” in a way that was inclusive of his father and those like him. This book isn’t the book my dad would have written (some of that is in dad’s final book on civil disobedience) and I’m sad that he never wrote it, indeed that he left so many things unwritten as the Alzheimer’s slowly disconnected from time and space, but it made me smile to imagine his book, as it were, between the lines of this one.

And then to try to do my duty as a reviewer to engage War by Other Means and Mercy on their own terms, present them to the reader, be generous but not naïve, and enjoy the privilege of writing about books. I hope I get to do it again soon.

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