Ted Grimsrud—Purpose vol. 44, no. 3 (March 2011), p. 28.
The more I learn about war, the more I am convinced that its most basic characteristic is loss. Maybe the most important loss, with devastating moral and spiritual consequences, is the sense that life is precious.
I have read recently, though, of human beings who in the darkest depths of the mass conflagration we call World War II resisted that loss.
Philip Hallie’s book, Less Innocent Blood Be Shed, tells of a small town in southern France that banded together to help over 5,000 Jewish refugees fleeing for the their lives in the face of Nazi extermination policies. The people of Le Chambon, inspired and emboldened by their pastor André Trocmé, explicitly affirmed belief in the preciousness of life and put their own lives on the line in order to save others.
A more challenging book for pacifists is Nechama Tec’s Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, Tec tells of the desperate work of some Polish Jews in the forests of eastern Poland who escaped the murderous efforts of the Nazis and their supporters, but then faced terrible challenges to survive in the most hostile environment imaginable. Yet, right there in the forests of death, a community of about 1,200 refugees were bound together and unlike just about any other group, welcomed into their midst any person in need, no matter how helpless. This effort involved some acts of violence, but the basic philosophy of this group was the desire to rescue whoever needed help, not to seek ways to take revenge against their would-be murderers (a motivation characteristic of most of those hiding out in the forests).
The third book, William Spanos’s In the Neighborhood of Zero, offers a much smaller scale affirmation of life. In this first-person memoir, Spanos tells of his experience as a young, inexperienced American solider who was taken captive by the Germans in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned near the German city of Dresden. So Spanos saw with his own eyes the devastating fire bombing of Dresden by unopposed British and American warplanes. Spanos vowed as a consequence of his experience to devote his life to opposing war and finding whatever ways he could to protect vulnerable and violated people. For this one person, at least, the trauma of profound loss in war led to an affirmation of the preciousness of life.