A Touch of Horror

Volha Hapeyeva on Pacifism and the Patriarchal Structures of War

Pacifism as a utopian dream in war, war as a metaphor and an expression of patriarchal systems, ideology as self-delusion? In her literary essay for the #FemalePeacePalace slam, Volha Hapeyeva analyses the causes and atrocities of war and asks if pacifism can ever be achieved – for even democracy constitutes “no guarantee of peace”.

“I was told the other day that the raids are carried out by women. Women’s bodies were found in the wrecked aeroplanes. They are smaller and lighter, and thus leave more room for bombs. Perhaps it is sentimental, but the thought seems to me to add a particular touch of horror.”

Virginia Woolf (7 June 1918, England)

„A Touch of Horror“ by Volha Hapeyeva

Nobody is protected from war. That is our sad reality.

We already live in a constant state of war. Listening to how we speak, there never seems to be peace. The metaphors of war are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, in our linguistic discourse, be it politics or love. We fight cancer, we fight for loved ones, we contest rap battles and win hearts.

Political language is riven with military metaphors when discussing issues that threaten the power of the state such as inflation, immigration, epidemics (the plague, Covid, etc.) or invasive plants. And constant wars are being waged against drugs, terrorism and even mosquitoes and other domestic pests.

The situation of war comprises a polarisation of views and a lack of common ground. Or rather, the unwillingness to recognise the commonalities we actually share as human beings.

When I think about how history is taught in school, the first thing I remember are the dates of wars and revolutions, and the names of major battles and wartime leaders – as if human history were primarily a history of wars. It is sad in the very least and often also dangerous that we grow up with such images and concepts in our minds. We are learning that the state of war is something normal, maybe even noble. Humanity has no problem justifying its cruelty with good intentions: just think of the Crusades. And if you add the military-patriotic ideology followed by most states to the equation, it is hardly surprising that actual wars are continuously breaking out around the world today.

The Utopian Dream of Pacifism in War

Compared to war, the concept of pacifism is relatively recent, although notions of peaceful living are known to have existed earlier. The emergence of pacifism as a movement appears to be a big step towards a sense of humanity. It shows us that large numbers of people understand that war and the armed resolution of problems and conflicts is inhumane and ineffective.

Pacifism as an attitude is possible from two different perspectives: before or after war. The goals of pacifism are often defined as “to avoid and prevent armed conflicts and to create the conditions for lasting peace”. On the one hand, when you are in the middle of a war, pacifism is no longer relevant because then it is all about survival and because there is no place for humanity or dialogue in war. Or, as Simone Weil puts it:

“[Force] turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.”

On the other hand, as pacifists we can and must continue to consider and emphasise the importance of distancing ourselves from violence and hatred – even if these words can be misinterpreted in the immediate vicinity of war. As writers and artists, we reflect on and deconstruct concepts associated with war, such as heroism, soldierly virtue and chivalry.

Turning the violence of war into something heroic is a dangerous mechanism. It is understandable why this happens: without any linguistic disguise, the absurdity and brutality of war stand naked before us. Literature, especially humanistic literature, can help us see war as actual war and not as a heroic spectacle. The Iliad could thus be described as the first pacifist poem:

“The cold brutality of the deeds of war is left undisguised; neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scorned, or hated.”


Democracy, Patriotism and Violence – Ideology as Subjective Self-Delusion?

With the development of human consciousness and progress, the hope grew that war as a method of conflict resolution would become obsolete. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Most countries still have armies and weapons. And paradoxically (or perhaps not, when you look at it more closely), the most democratic country in the world – at least by self-proclamation – the US is also the most powerful and militaristic state. This means that even democracy constitutes no guarantee of peace. A country’s democracy does not mean that it is non-violent or non-patriarchal. Democracy still has its hierarchies.

In most cases, nation states arise as a result of wars or revolutions. They are entities based on force and violence and it is difficult, if not impossible, to step outside of this framework. That is why the citizens of a state are so often torn between patriotic duty and an abhorrence of war.

Politics and ideologies can play very well with human emotions, leading us to believe that sacrifices in the name of the government, state or nation are necessary and noble. I do not want to say that loving your country is bad. But this love should not be blind or neurotic or the only possible love. Therefore, a critical approach to ‘patriotic’ feelings would be a good place to start when thinking about pacifism.

There is an odd, I would even say paradoxical twist to the way the state views violence. When a citizen enters the state-citizen relationship, they relinquish their right to violent action to that state. But in the case of authoritarian and other non-democratic regimes, any action that in any way criticises or challenges the power of the state – be it a silent sit-in or a poem – is viewed by that state as a threat to its existence and is thus deemed to be ‘violent’. Such acts can and will therefore be punished with violence by the state. The paranoid mindset of such governments considers any form of non-compliance or disobedience to be a breach of the law and they respond with real acts of violence. Because in the eyes of the state, there is no difference between a song and armed resistance.

The second crucial element when thinking about the relationship between violence and non-violence is to consider responsibility as a reason for doing something.

When a governmental order or (patriotic) duty takes precedence over human duty, we hear people say: “I would gladly pardon the poor girl, but it is wrong, for I am a king” or “I couldn’t have acted any differently, it was the law / my duty / an order,” and so on. Certain patriarchal institutions and ideologies deprive the individual of personal – human – responsibility so that this individual can justify their ‘inhumanity’. It is as though the state is trying to replace an external cause with an internal one. This ideology aims for people to embrace the ideological order of the state as an inner moral law whereas, in reality, it is a matter of subjective self-delusion. The individual can then believe that they are doing good in the name of God or the Party or some other ‘higher’ power. Thus, they blindly comply with the demands placed on them and ignore those moments when the human within them awakens or stirs.

The Relationship between Patriarchal Principles and Pacifism

Unfortunately, the pacifist lobby is not a particularly strong one. A pacifist attitude lacks the backing of multi-million-dollar corporations or those in power who, conversely, do everything they can to depict pacifism as boring, cowardly and passive. Our societies are founded on patriarchal principles and continue to follow them to this day. Structural violence is normal in societies where wealth is mostly controlled by men – men with enormous egos and a lack of empathy – and where a feudal-age ideology still reigns with ideas that

“the use of physical force … also defines an individual’s social position. Fighting, brawling and hunting were commonplace activities in the Middle Ages and violence was part of the enjoyment of life, especially for the noble classes.”


As long as we operate and communicate using these old metaphors and mindsets, we will continue to live in them. But the metaphors of travel and adventure, conversation and compassion, offer us alternatives. Being loving, empathetic and kind is not boring or passive. On the contrary, it is extremely hard work and evidence of true heroism.

Writer: Volha Hapeyeva


(1) Simone Weil, “The Iliad or The Poem of Force”, in Simone Weil, An Anthology. Penguin, London 2005, 182-215, p. 210.

(2) Translated from: Ari Turunen & Markus Partanen, Bitte nach Ihnen, Madam. Eine kurze Geschichte des guten Benehmens, Nagel & Kimche, Zurich 2016, p. 125.

Volha Hapeyeva was born in Minsk, Belarus, and is a poet, writer and translator with a doctorate in linguistics. She has received numerous awards and honours for her work, her poems have been translated into more than 15 languages and she is the author of 14 books in Belarusian. English-language editions of her work include her volume of poetry In My Garden of Mutants (Arc, 2021) while her novel Camel Travel (Droschl, 2021) and her essay The Defense of Poetry in Times of Permanent Exile (Verbrecher, 2022) are both available in German. She is the 2021/2022 holder of a PEN Centre Germany scholarship and a 2022 DAAD Artists-in-Berlin fellow. In 2022, she was awarded the German Wortmeldungen literary award.