There is a citadel atop Gellert Hill in Budapest called aptly – if unimaginatively – enough, The Citadel. It’s a squat, unlovely building, hunkered upon the highest point along the river Danube like a squashed toad. Even so, the parkland that surrounds it is pleasant and the views of the city are stunning.
A part of the northern wall is flanked by WWII-era howitzers of various shapes and sizes, and people often stop to have photographs taken with them. On Saturday we spent the day in the park, picnicking and playing, then wandered up to the citadel. A group of young Russian men stood near the largest, taking turns having their photos taken astride the gun’s enormous phallic barrel, variously grabbing or stroking it suggestively. A group of young American women were striking poses next to another. “You look so badass,” one commented to her friend.
Our eldest was climbing around on them, making the usual whizzing bomb-and-explosion sounds, as boys tend to do. While I didn’t really have much of a problem with this, I still found it vaguely disquieting. It just seemed that the appropriate emotion in the presence of these artifacts from a war in which millions died and in which Budapest lost almost its entire Jewish population, under the looming walls of a powerful symbol of oppression, antagonism and paranoia, should not be one of playful posturing or gleeful game-playing.
I let my son play for as long as he liked, but as we were leaving I said to him, “You know, as cool and impressive as these guns are, you have to remember that their only purpose, the only thing they can do, is to kill people. Violently. And there’s nothing good about that.”
Behind me, I heard one of the American girls say, rather contemptuously, “Pacifism 101.” I turned and smiled at her, and said, “Exactly.” She didn’t smile back. She sneered.
So I decked her. Probably broke her nose, but I didn’t wait around to find out – I fled the scene, but not before calling out, “How do you like that pacifism, you bloodthirsty cow?”
Actually, we simply made our way back home through the park, but the woman’s attitude got me thinking. Peace is inherently good. From all accounts that I’ve read, those people unfortunate enough to be embroiled in violent conflict want nothing so much as an end to it. There may be just wars, necessary wars, but never good wars. “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell,” noted William Tecumseh Sherman, the ‘scorched earth’ Civil War general not famed for being in touch with his inner pacifist. War, even unavoidable war, is a bad thing. Violence against others, particularly noncombatant civilians (conservative estimates of civilian deaths in WWII are around 40 million), is generally held to be an extraordinarily unfortunate phenomenon.
And yet ‘pacifism’ is frequently used as a term of derision. There are many shades in the spectrum of ‘pacifism,’ but one basic definition is: “The principle or policy that all differences among nations should be adjusted without recourse to war.” Would anyone argue with that? Would anyone claim that it isn’t better to work out international disputes peacefully, to look at the root causes of conflict (and no, it’s not that “They hate our freedom”) and attempt to address those issues in an intelligent, thoughtful, and realistic manner?
People seem to want to equate pacifism with weakness, aggression with strength. But I don’t think many would claim that Mahatma Gandhi was weak. Or Martin Luther King. Or the Chinese man facing down the tanks on Tiananmen Square. It frequently takes far more courage to oppose violence than to engage in it. Making a thorough and honest examination of our nations, our governments, and ourselves is far more difficult than falling back on simplistic slogans and childish jingoism.
We make all sorts of decisions about what to teach our children, what values we wish to instill in them. I wonder what objection this young woman had to me suggesting to my son that war was bad and peace was good. To get him to think just a little bit about what those imaginary bombs he was raining down on the city below might do the people living there, just as the very real bombs that once blasted very real Hungarians to bits. Perhaps she thought I was some kind of freaky peace-loving hippie out to undermine national security and bring about the downfall of the American way of life. Perhaps she thought I was teaching my son to be weak.