From Guns to Flowers

 

One hundred years ago, in 1917, my father lied about his age and signed up with the German Army in the little town of Tilsit. The phrase "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"- "It is sweet and honourable to die for your country" - was carved into a plaque at his high school. Hans-Georg Stieren fought in those horrible trenches in World War I and won the Iron Cross. As I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, he told me that no one gained from that war at all - except the arms makers.

In 1963, I was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College just outside of Philadelphia. To do something nonviolently for justice, I participated in a sit-in in Cambridge, Maryland. I was arrested along with seventeen Swarthmore classmates and others protesting the segregation of African-Americans. Later, when I was back in Illinois during the Vietnam War, my mother and I both joined the Quaker Meeting in Downers Grove. In 1967, I carried up donations to Toronto for the Canadian Friends Service Committee, the Quaker agency sending medical relief to all sides in the Vietnam War. When my local draft board denied me conscientious objector status because I had only been a Quaker for a year, my pacifist options were just two. I could go to jail rather than serve in the US Army, or go to Canada. I chose Canada. There was a moment of shock when I unexpectedly failed my physical exam for the Army. I was free! I could go anywhere. I went to Toronto in the spring of 1968.

After I finished my BA in History at York University, I became a reporter and then news editor for a local community newspaper from 1974 to 1977. My next job for three years was planning and organizing the summer school on Grindstone Island known as the Grindstone School for Peace Research, Education and Action. I was then hired as the coordinator of Canadian Friends Service Committee, where I worked from 1982 to 1987. My first marriage, to Pat Newcombe in 1992, did not last: we separated in 1995 and then divorced.

Reinventing myself as a technical writer in Ottawa, I worked for two software firms, from 1992 to 2001. During that time, I met David Hartsough at a peace conference in New Jersey where I was hosting a workshop. I was inspired by the vision and the work that he and Mel Duncan had done toward creating a nonviolent peace force. My friends and I hosted two meetings of their international steering committee – in Wakefield and Gracefield, Quebec – in the early 2000s. I went to New Delhi in 2002 where I was one of the 140 delegates from around the world founding the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

At the Friends General Conference Gathering in Wisconsin in 2007, I met a woman named Isabelle Yingling. We were married in the Ann Arbor Quaker Meeting House in 2009 and she moved up to join me in Canada in 2010.

In 2013, I created the board game, It Happened in The 60s. In it, I sought to show the successes and the failures, the joys and the sorrows of the peace and civil rights movements. With 328 question cards, I could reflect the incredible creative energy of the 1960s. Those years were fuelled by a fire that burned brightly but also destroyed some of its finest singers, songwriters, poets and organizers.

For the 50th anniversary of the March on the Pentagon on October 21, 1967, I wrote a song about my experiences there and those of others who even put flowers into the barrels of guns.

 

By: Carl Stieren

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