He would be called an icon if he was in business, sports or even politics but in the world that he inhabits 85-year-old peace activist Murray Thomson is just quietly and deeply respected. This night he speaks about militarism to a group of about 50 people at the modest Quakers House in Ottawa as part of a two-week peace festival. There is a video and some music provided by a middle-aged group who (tongue-in-cheek) call themselves Grateful Weâ€™re Not Dead — but Thomsonâ€™s 15-minute speech is the centrepiece. â€œMilitarism is bad for the global economy, terrible for the environment, hugely destructive of human rights and of life itself, and it poses a major risk to the future of humanity,â€ Thomson says.
He has a deeper appreciation than most about both the attraction and repulsion of militarism. He was a student at the University of Toronto when the Second World War began. He enlisted in the air force and became a pilot although he never actually flew a combat mission. He was still in the military when, in 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. â€œHiroshima made me a pacifist,â€ Thomson told Embassy magazine in June 2008, and now, 63 years after that unspeakably violent event,Â he is still spreading the word about resisting militarism and building peace.
Militarism, Thomson says, is fed by the recruitment and training of armed forces, nourished by military alliances, such as NATO, and supported by the well-funded secret intelligence agencies. â€œMilitarism grows in a social climate characterized by nationalism, patriotism, denigration of women and an over-emphasis on authority, buttressed by attitudes which stress the perversity and weakness of human nature. Militarism is fostered by economic, political and military interest groups which benefit materially from the arms trade.â€ Canada, for example, plans to spend $490 billion on the military over the next 20 years, and the U.S. spends $700 billon each year. Thomson says the tentacles of the defence establishment and its lobby are everywhere and that militarism is deeply etched into our individual and collective consciousness.
Canadaâ€™s Department of National Defence (DND), he says, spends millions of dollars on think tanks and scholars and in return expects them to provide supportive commentary. Citing research by University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran, Thomson says that eleven universities receive between $580,000 and $780,000, and Queens University obtained a grant of $1.5 million. â€œHe [Attaran] claims that DND sponsors policy scholars who create the ideas, news and views that shape Canadiansâ€™ perceptions of the military and war.â€
Militarism is also associated with the acceptance of violence in films and videos, and our use of language in sports and other community events, Thomson says. â€œWho of us is not embarrassed by the rants of Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada, the champion of both hockey brawling and a tougher military?â€ Many professional sports teams â€œuse military terms to describe and promote their activities and at last yearâ€™s football final in Toronto, the Grey Cup was brought into the Rogers Centre by the Canadian military. It could be seen, riding on a tank, followed by a recruitment detachment from DND.â€
Thomson may be discouraged but he is not deterred. He has been an active pacifist and remains so. Heâ€™s worked for the Quakers and internationally for CUSO. He was the co-founder of the inter-church peace group Project Ploughshares, a founder of Peace Brigades International and of Peace Fund Canada, a campaign aimed at allowing conscientious objectors to have their tax payments spent only for non-military purposes. For his unceasing efforts, he has received the Order of Canada, the Pearson Peace Medal and other awards.
Thomson provides his Quaker House audience with a checklist of practical ways to challenge militarism. They include:
– Keep on doing what we are doing. Work to rid the world of weapons: land mines, cluster bombs, automatic weapons, arms technology or weapons of mass destruction.
– Ask questions of academic presidents about the research done because of grants received from the Department of National Defence.
– Advocate for a [Canadian] DepartmentÂ of Peace which puts peace, the environment and disarmament priorities into foreign policy andÂ seeks to train thousands of youth and others in conflict resolution, in Canada or elsewhere.
– Campaign to end the war in Afghanistan and to support war resisters seeking to live Canada.
– Support couragaeous Africans seeking to end civil conflicts in their countries, or Israelis and Palestinians seeking a just solutions to the never-ending conflict in the Middle East.
– Keep on working to creating global structures that strengthen international law and human rights.
– Challenge NATOâ€™s nuclear policies and the existence of NATO itself.
– Find the means to coordinate efforts, pool financial, human and spiritual resources and speak with one voice.
Then, having delivered his speech, Murray Thomson picks up a fiddle and plays a tune along with the eveningâ€™s entertainers. All they are saying was give peace a chance.