Violence, Pacifism, and War: A Tribute to My Father and All Veterans

Photo of veteran Warren Saunders, Cat's father (died 2004)
Warren Saunders,
Cat’s father (died 2004)

“Whatever you say about God you should be able to say standing over a pit full of burning babies.”  —Elie Wiesel

By Cat Saunders

I have no idea where to begin. In the face of spurting blood, exploding guts, and burning flesh, words feel inadequate and trite. How can I speak about war when the only spurting blood, exploding guts, and burning flesh I’ve known have come to me at the hands of surgeons? My body may feel like a battlefield sometimes, but it’s nothing compared to the real thing.

Somehow, I must find a way to say thank you to my father, who lived with hellish memories of World War II tucked not-so-safely away in his heart. Somehow, I must find a way to say thank you to all the other men and women who served and sacrificed and gave their lives in the name of freedom. Somehow, I must find a way to say thanks, but how?

The writer in me knows only one way to show my gratitude: by using the freedoms those soldiers fought to protect. Think about it. I wouldn’t be writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it, if we didn’t have freedom of speech and a free press. Rivers of blood have been shed so that I may speak my heart to you now. Even if I wanted to criticize the soldiers who bought my freedom with their lives, I have that right.

Criticism is the furthest thing from my mind. Instead, I want to tell you how I make sense of violence and war. I want to tell you how I make peace with my pacifist tendencies, so they don’t tyrannize all my other principles. And I want to tell you how my own blood and Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” helped me write this article.

“There is a Hitler in all of us.”

Years ago, I read an interview with the Dalai Lama, who is a deeply compassionate man and a paragon of pacifism. Even he, the Dalai Lama, said that if he had to cut off one of his fingers to save his hand, he would do it.

Around the same time, I saw a television interview with Elie Wiesel, noted author and survivor of the Nazi Holocaust. The interviewer asked him a hypothetical question, namely, if he could have killed Adolph Hitler, would he have done so? Wiesel said yes. I’ll never forget that.

How can a couple of pacifists talk about doing violence to themselves or others? Isn’t that hypocritical? Not in my book. Webster’s defines pacifism as “the opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes.” I think it’s possible to be opposed to violence and still find yourself called to use it in extreme situations when all else has failed.

Like it or not, violence is a part of nature, and it’s a part of human nature. Frankly, our puny human outbursts — and even our wars — are minor in comparison to earthquakes, volcanoes, sunspot eruptions, and supernova explosions. Nature is full of violence! It dances at every level of existence.

Conception, for instance, is a violent act. The sperm violates the integrity of the egg in order to merge with it and create life. Another more obvious act of violence is eating. All of us, vegetarians included, must kill to survive. As Thich Nhat Hanh says in Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, “This plate of food, so fragrant and appetizing, also contains much suffering.”

It’s futile to deny that violence is necessary for life. It makes more sense to be aware of this and responsible about it. Unfortunately, there is so much fear of irresponsible violence that all violence is considered wrong. In the same vein, many people believe that part of their primal nature is wrong: the part that could kill if its life is threatened.

No part of human nature is wrong, even the violent or destructive part. Everyone has these tendencies. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross tells the story of Golda, who survived Maidanek, one of Hitler’s most notorious death camps. Golda knew that everyone is capable of committing atrocities. “There is a Hitler in all of us,” she said.

Starry-Eyed Pacifism and Survival Instincts

For years, I tried to spiritualize everything. I didn’t want to make room in my universe for any kind of violence, responsible or otherwise. In my starry-eyed pacifism, I would shake my head in disgust at those who raised their fists or dropped their bombs.

At some point, I got more connected to my animal self, and I started thinking more deeply about how much violence it takes to support survival. I’d contemplate the words of Elie Wiesel, or I’d think about Hitler, or I’d remember the time someone tried to rape my best friend at knifepoint. What happens to my pacifism when reality presents its opposite? Do I turn the other cheek, or do I fight?

I’ve been in enough life-threatening situations to know that I’m a fighter. If my life is threatened, I do everything possible to negotiate, disable my attacker, or run away — not necessarily in that order. So far, this has been enough. However, I would kill to defend myself if all else failed, and I’d take responsibility for doing so.

The point is, if I would fight to save my life, how can I judge a country that fights to defend itself? Don’t get me wrong. I rarely find any country’s reasons for war to be worthy of blowing thousands of people to bits. However, my idea of a stupid reason might be someone else’s idea of survival.

This doesn’t mean I condone war. In point of fact, I hate war. If it were up to me, I’d destroy all the guns and bombs and weapons of mass destruction. But it’s not up to me, so I make do with reality. The reality is, large-scale war is uniquely human. Have you ever wondered about that?

What if war is part of the human condition, the way peaceful coexistence is part of it? Can you work for peace even if you must make peace with war?

What if there are bigger forces that play themselves out through our individual and collective experiences? If you are only a pawn in the game, can you still find the courage to take a stand?

What if we are curious about death and destruction the way we are about life and creation? Can you accept and celebrate the apparent contradictions of your humanity?

Blood, Shock, and “Saving Private Ryan”

On August 7, 1998, the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by terrorists, killing 257 people. Before these attacks, I had begun working on a new section about violence in my book, Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human. Later, on August 20, Americans bombed several sites in Sudan and Afghanistan, which many people decried as terrorism in its own right.

When we dropped those bombs, I stopped writing. I knew what I needed to say, but I was scared to take a stand. I knew that hardcore pacifists would judge my acceptance of the fighter position, and I knew that warmongers would judge my advocacy for peace. Eventually, I realized that extremists of either position can be equally blind. Even pacifists can become tyrants if they refuse to acknowledge the validity of the opposing position.

Consider this: Where would the surviving Jews be if no one had sacrificed their lives to stop Hitler’s genocide? Could it be that one of the purposes of the fighter position is to preserve the lives of pacifists? And could one of the purposes of the pacifist position be to inspire those who are willing to die? The point is, human existence is rarely black-or-white. Sometimes life is messy and complicated and confusing.

After several days of sitting with these thoughts, I still wasn’t writing. I was agitated and angry. In the midst of this turmoil, I had a sense that Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” would break the impasse.

I’d read the reviews, and I knew that World War II veterans were themselves amazed by Spielberg’s accurate depiction of the horrors they endured. Since I realized the film would be an excursion to hell, I made a plan. My intention was to breathe continuously and keep my eyes, ears, and heart open no matter what. It wasn’t easy.

There is no way I can describe the movie, except to say that Spielberg has done the world a great service by showing war in all its messy, complicated, confusing, and excruciatingly gory detail. When the film opened to its brutal half-hour portrayal of the Normandy massacre (D-Day), I wanted to throw my arms around every veteran I could find and say thank you.

I wondered how I could ever honor all those men who carried their butchered buddies on their backs, forced themselves to blow other men’s brains out, and kept going even when they felt their own bodies splintering and splattering and suffocating in blood.

During the movie, my eyes would sometimes fill with tears, but there was no time to cry. This was war, after all. When the film ended, I let the sobs come, although I made no sound. John (my partner) and I sat there in our theater seats for a long time, then we slowly made our way back to the car. I couldn’t talk all the way home. I was in shock, literally. When I did finally speak once we got home, I stuttered badly because of my altered state.

My legs were stiff with tetany, but I managed to stumble into the bathroom. I was bleeding hard that night; it was the heaviest day of my cycle. As I changed my saturated menstrual pad, I was suddenly overcome by a primal urge. I wanted to smear blood on my face. With as little thought as possible, I went over to the mirror.

Gazing steadily into my own eyes, I reached down between my legs and brought up fingers full of bright red blood. I smeared the blood across my face. It barely showed. My God, I thought, it takes a lot of blood to show up red against flesh. Battle scenes from Spielberg’s movie flashed across my mind.

Then I remembered some feminists saying that you’re not really a woman until you’ve tasted your own menstrual blood. I reached down, drew up more blood, and stuck it in my mouth. It tasted exactly like the blood I’ve sucked from cuts on my fingers.  It tasted salty, like the ocean.

If my blood-tasting initiation grosses you out, and you can’t understand my shock-altered state, then I doubt if you can understand what I’m saying about violence, pacifism, and war—and the inherent messiness of life.

Ultimately, war is mysterious, the way pain and death and passion and life are mysterious. Contemplating the mystery, the best I can do is figure out where my own life is leading me at any given time, and take a stand. I stand on the side of peace, even if I must fight. Where do you stand?

This article is from a series on death originally published by The New Times (1998-99) and updated in November 2016.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).