Weird History
15.9k readers

10 Totally Heroic Pacifists from History

Updated June 18, 2021 15.9k views10 items

There's a special kind of bad*ss in the world, though they are often considered a coward at first glance. The kind who's not afraid to risk their life, but still refuses to raise a fist. Some people consider pacifists to be weak, but this cadre of famous pacifists might change their minds. And it's not just famous pacifist leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. who displayed bravery and balls in the face of great danger. Other, less well-known non-violent leaders carried the torch of the peaceful warrior, as well. This list looks at historical figures whose actions proved that you don't need a gun or fist to join the hero club.

  • Desmond T. Doss = Gandhi + Rambo

    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Talk about a walking contradiction: Desmond T. Doss was a Seventh-Day Adventist, a pacifist, and a vegetarian who easily qualified for a religious deferment from the draft during World War 2. Instead, he volunteered for military service, because he believed that defeating fascism was a just cause... but he still refused to commit violence, or even to carry a gun. These baffling shenanigans earned him a Section 8 hearing, which his CO hoped would get him kicked out of the Army. His fellow troops weren't too nice to him, either, interpreting his pacifist beliefs as a cover for basic cowardice.

    Doss prevailed at his Section 8 hearing, and was granted the right to serve as a medic with B Company of the 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division... without carrying a gun. He was then sent to the Pacific Theater to help fight the Imperial Japanese. And it was at a scenic little spot called Okinawa that Desmond T. Doss would both exemplify and break the mold for pacifists everywhere.

    In May 1945, his unit was forced to climb a 400-foot-tall cliff to attack an entrenched Japanese position. The American forces met with powerful resistance and suffered heavy casualties... and Doss was there to fulfill his destiny, by entering the pacifist equivalent of Hulk smash mode.

    As Japanese artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire forced his comrades to fall back, Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the field of fire to recover 75 wounded American soldiers, carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and lowering them to safety on a rope-supported litter. He did this while facing down an enemy notorious for targeting medical personnel.

    And that was just his first day in action at Okinawa.

    The next day, Doss exposed himself once again to Japanese rifle and mortar fire to rescue a wounded man 200 yards forward of the American line.  Two days after that, he advanced through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of a heavily-fortified Japanese cave position, so he could treat four American soldiers who'd been cut down trying to take it. The day after that, he braved enemy fire again to treat a wounded officer, dragging the man to a safe position and applying plasma treatment while shells exploded all around him. He kept this up for almost a whole month, until finally being wounded in the leg by a grenade.

    Even that was not enough to deter this nonviolent warrior, though. Doss dressed his own wounds, then waited five hours for a rescue. When his rescuers came under  heavy tank fire during their retreat to the hospital position, Doss gave up his cot for a more critically-wounded soldier nearby, and again waited for the litter-bearers to return for him.

    That's when he got shot in the arm, suffering a compound fracture. He splinted his arm with a rifle stock (the only time in his life he ever held a gun), and then crawled over 300 yards of rough terrain to the aid station.

    Needless to say, even before this point, Doss had already earned the love and respect of his formerly-scoffing fellow soldiers, including one who'd formerly threatened to shoot Doss himself if they ever found themselves on the battlefield together.

    Doss's incredible bravery also put him in the history books as the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the U.S.'s highest military citation. And his unbelievable tale of pacifist brass ballsery appeared on big screens everywhere in the movie Hacksaw Ridge.

    You might think Doss was a fluke, but since his demonstration of Rambo-meets-Gandhi courage in battle, two other American pacifists also earned the Medal of Honor after him. Both of them served as medics, too, proving that courage lies in the service, not the slaying. Check out their Medal of Honor citations below:

    Cpl. Thomas W. Bennett

    SPC4 Jospeh G. LaPointe Jr.

  • Paul Rusesabagina, Hotel Manager vs. Murdering Horde

    Photo: US Embassy Sweden / via Wikimedia

    This guy got his own movie, too, and deserves a whole lot more (much of which, thankfully, he has received).

    The context of Paul Rusesabagina's tale is complex, so here's the short version: take your favorite zombie apocalypse siege story, make it real-life by having genocidal machete-wielding sociopaths stand in for zombies, and hole your heroes up in a posh hotel with no training or equipment that would help them fend off the murderous hordes. It would take a real badass to turn that situation around, and that's exactly what happened at the Hotel Mille Collines, in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994. Except the badass in this story wasn't a half-mad Georgia sheriff or a wise-cracking tough guy with a chainsaw for a hand, but a humble hotel manager with nerves of steel and a heartfelt belief in the inherent goodness of his fellow humans.

    The Rwandan Genocide claimed the lives of nearly one million people in just 100 days, when mobs and militias of ethnic Hutus (one of the two main tribal groups in the country) took up machetes and any other murder tools they could find and began slaughtering their Tutsi neighbors (the other main ethnic group of Rwanda) en masse. This nightmare scenario involved atrocities from the darkest pages of horror fiction, including cannibalism and all sorts of medieval dismemberment, on top of the executions and persecutions you'd expect from a genocide.

    In the midst of all this horror, Rusesabagina, a Hutu himself, decided he just wasn't feeling the axe-swinging murder vibe, and chose instead to do whatever he could to save as many lives as possible. His position as manager of the posh Mille Collines put him in a pretty good position to hunker down and weather the storm, since the hotel had been abandoned almost immediately by its Belgian owners and foreign staff, leaving Rusesabagina in charge with access to a fairly large stock of resources. He immediately moved his family into the hotel, and turned it into a place of refuge for Hutu and Tutsi alike. Ultimately, the hotel became a sanctuary for 1,268 Rwandan people of all ethnic backgrounds.

    As one can imagine, the local murder horde bosses weren't too happy about this. But their constant threats of invasion, sending of assassins to roam the hallways, smashing of windows, and other terror tactics were no match for Rusesabagina's iron will, ability to inspire solidarity among the hotel denizens, and his two most effective weapons: a single working landline phone, and the hotel's stockpile of expensive French wine.

    When he wasn't bribing militia commanders with bottles of Burgundy and Bourdeaux, Rusesabagina was on the phone to anyone who would listen and possibly help with the situation: the international press, the United Nations, the French Foreign Ministry, even the White House at one point. Yes, this lowly African hotel manager was able to call up the President of the US, because he was just that awesome.

    Every time the militia moved into the hotel to make demands or issue threats or intimidate everyone by ransacking the place, Rusesabagina responded with firm tough-love refusals to comply, standing his ground but refusing to raise a fist. The mob knew the whole world was watching them, and that knowledge combined with Rusesabagina's apparent fearlessness was enough to keep them at bay for 11 weeks. This turned the Mille Collines Hotel into a tense, but ultimately safe, island of calm in a sea of degradation and atrocity. By the siege's end, all 1, 268 people who'd sought refuge at the hotel walked out alive.

    Rusesabagina has since received numerous honors for his life-saving peaceful badassery, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. He remains an outspoken defender of universal human rights to this day.

  • The true identity of the brave soul known only as "Tank Man" remains a mystery.

    If you think that sounds like the name of a superhero, you're not far off. After all, the dude did single-handedly bring an army to a stop. And he did it without firing a shot at anyone.

    It happened on June 5, 1989, the day after the Tianamen Square protests ended in a bloody and tragic suppression of student activists by the Chinese army. By some accounts, Chinese troops armed with automatic rifles killed thousands of protestors calling for economic and political reform. More conservative estimates put the number of dead in the hundreds. Either way, it was a terrible event on everyone's minds the morning Tank Man walked out and stopped an army, with only his groceries to protect him.

    He kept the line of Chinese tanks stopped in their tracks for nearly three minutes, gesturing at them, shouting, and even climbing aboard the lead tank to have words with the driver. And the whole world watched him do it.

    No one knows for certain who he was, or what became of him after his brave stand, but one thing is undeniable: he became an instant icon. Few images evoke the spirit and power of nonviolent protest against overwhelming forces like that of Tank Man facing down a death machine.

  • Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    To earn the title of Pacifist Badass, you have to do more than just go to a few protests and get slapped around (though that does require courage, no doubt). Pacifist badasses take it a step further, and actually call the oppressor's bluff with snark and moxie, right to the oppressor's faces, putting themselves in danger while showing they give zero f*cks. Case in point: Bayard Rustin, the man who basically taught MLK everything he knew about nonviolence.

    Rustin was an openly gay African-American Quaker civil rights activist. Again: openly gay... in the 1950s and 1960s, when even people on "your side" were likely to just up and murder you for that kind of thing. So, just from that fact alone, we already know Rustin was a tough dude.

    Rustin played a central, some say indispensable, role in organizing the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech. He was a mover and big league nonviolent activist in social justice movements for over 30 years, starting in the 1940s, when he went to prison for refusing to serve in the military.

    But Rustin was no milquetoast. He had the stones to stand and take a beating with dignity, often shaming his attacker so badly that they just gave up and went home. For example, during an anti-Korean War protest, Rustin ended up getting beaten severely by a stranger with a heavy stick. Not one to back down from a cause he believed was right, Rustin's response was to pick up another stick and offer it to his attacker, asking if he'd like to beat Rustin with that one, too.

    And it worked. The attacker was so shamed and confused by Rustin's gall that he stopped attacking him, threw down both sticks, and walked away quietly.

    If "mic: dropped" had been a thing in the 1950s, that's pretty much a textbook case. You don't mess with openly gay African-American Quakers in the 1950s, at least if they're named Bayard Rustin.