I walked into Powell’s Books with no real agenda, a dangerous decision on the pocketbook, but what can I say? I live on the edge. I have been trying to broaden my fiction horizons recently though, so I decided that was a good place to start. Being terribly ignorant on the topic of contemporary fiction authors I decided to find a book from an author I respect and go from there. I went immediately to Vera Brittain, author of the acclaimed Testament of Youth and who also had a fairly extensive fiction repertoire. I picked up Born 1925, read a few lines from the dust jacket, and decided to purchase the novel.
Every few weeks or so I get the overwhelming urge to read Testament of Youth again- to consume all of the content on WWI that I possibly can. When this impulse struck me a few weeks ago I used some self restraint and decided I should read that novel I picked up on a whim. So I began Born 1925 and haven’t stopped talking about it since. It picks up at the tail end of WWI and leads the reader through the pacifist movement of the interwar period. Not only did this novel move me to tears, it has fundamentally changed my connection to and involvement in war.
Like most people I have always wanted peace in the world, but thought it to be a fairly far fetched idea. Great concept guys, but we live in a time of modern warfare, atomic bombs, and governmental surveillance- it’s just not realistic. Growing up in post 9/11 USA heavily affected the way I viewed patriotism and the concept of “just war”. I grew up with parents who claim to be swing voters, but have never conceptualized voting for anyone close to the left-wing. These parents also taught me the teachings of Jesus, and from a young age things just didn’t add up. This guy seemed like Pacifist #1. Jesus was turning the other cheek and loving his neighbor like nobody’s business. Meanwhile we were ostracizing anyone of the Islamic religion and seeking revenge wherever seemed viable.** As time distanced the American public from the tragedy of 9/11 we started to reflect differently on the “war on terror”. Gradually, for some, the commentary that we taught our youth changed to convey the error of our ways- how 60 words set in motion a wildfire of war and unrest. It’s obviously not difficult to see what my opinion of the USA’s presence in Iraq/Afghanistan/Everywhere is. I grew into an adult who on one hand couldn’t justify the war our country was in, but who on the other hand couldn’t see a way out without more violence. I was never taught that there might be another option other than killing and killing and shooting and killing. Sure, I was taught about Jesus and loving and turning the other cheek, but this was the 21st century! Jesus couldn’t possibly have been talking to us about our enemies-he understands, he LOVES America!
I gradually began to look for options other than war in settling our conflicts. Whenever I would truly ponder the effectiveness of pacifism in the modern world my mind would inevitably wander to WWII. You see, here in America we have a sort of obsession with WWII. The amount of movies set in this time period is frankly overwhelming. But all of our content starts just before or immediately following the USA’s involvement. Hitler has captured much of Europe, Japan has delivered the first attack on US soil, and war is rampant around the globe. Through the lense of American movies there was no stopping this, and quite frankly at that point in the late 30’s there really was no stopping it. My brain would always stop there, Well Hitler had a lot of power and America’s presence helped. I guess war was necessary in that circumstance. But this is where Born 1925 comes into play for my little psyche. This book is about men and women who were working to build a Europe that wouldn’t allow for Hitler to ever rise to power. People who eventually stayed true to their morals as war began to wage. The plot follows a pacifist preacher and former British soldier through the formation of his Anglican pacifist movement, the rumblings of another global conflict, and the involvement of his son in the eventual fighting of WWII. It opened my eyes to the fact that pacifism in not about being passive. It is actually quite an active ideology, but done mainly in the great, albeit not romantic, field of politics. Maybe that’s why our movies start when the conflict is under way- no one wants to focus on the legislation that could have prevented a global atrocity. And that’s where America’s obsession with WWII is partly to blame for our lack of sympathy towards the pacifist movement. If you look at every war from the day of declaration onward you will miss all the decisions that led to the war and all the practical ways it could have been prevented.
What if Germany had never been placed in the situation where it wanted a leader like Hitler? What if the retribution after WWI had been more fairly distributed? People always counter the idea of pacifism with “But would you kill Hitler?” and that’s not really the point. I mean, if we’re speaking in the grandiose hypothetical I would avoid killing Hitler by making a world where Hitler would never have had the opportunity to rise to power. If the Treaty of Versailles would have dealt with Germany justly after WWI our world would be a drastically different place. If we would have treated the war on terror differently who knows where the Middle East would be (probably not great, but I would argue infinitely better).
Obviously Hitler was stopped. Obviously we sent troops to Iraq. We can’t change the actions made in the past, but just as Europe made decisions that led to WWII, we are making decision today that may well lead to WWIII. These years when the rumblings of war are growing louder and louder are when pacifism is most needed. Active and moving pacifism is what can change the course of the world and save a countless amount of lives.
Thank you Vera Brittain for teaching me to be educated and knowledgable, to be merciful to my fellow global citizens.
**When I speak in the plural here I do not mean to imply that my parents were at all contributors to the racial hate of Muslims in America, I simply mean the USA as a whole. My parents are gracious and loving people who do not believe that you are defined by the actions of those halfway across the world who share the same religious title as you.