Interview with a Peacemaker-Veteran

C. G. (‘Giff’) Gifford was a navigator on a Lancaster bomber during the raid on Dresden in World War II. That experience alone makes it possible for him to speak credibly with other veterans about war and peace. We spoke with him in Halifax, where the organization he founded, Veterans for Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament, was preparing to open up its national office.

By Andrew Pakula and Mark Pancer | 1985-12-01 12:00:00

CANDIS: What in your background makes you work so hard on this issue?

GIFFORD: My father was a theologian who taught at a university in Britain and wrote a pacifist book. I probably was influenced. I entered university in 1935 during the Spanish Civil War. The Japanese were just about to go into China so I became aware of these things. My father had stopped being a pacifist when he saw what fascism was doing. I was at a Student Christian conference at McGill the weekend after Munich and we sent a message to Chamberlain condemning his actions. That was very controversial: The newspapers thought Chamberlain was great. But once the Nazi invasions began in 1940 we got into opposing fascism. I was in heavy bombing during the war—in a Lancaster. I was in the raid on Dresden. There were four waves—huge raids, with 1200 heavy bombers and about 8000 or 9000 air crew members. But you know, six months later, one plane with one bomb had an equal amount of explosive power—and radiation killed more than an equal number additionally.

And then in the late 5Os there was a concern about strontium. I got involved after Albert Schweitzer made his appeal in 1958. But then, as with many people, once Khrushchev and Kennedy had come to an agreement about atmospheric tests we thought the governments had come to their senses. So I focused on other things, although I kept referring to peace issues and development through the 60s and 70s. I was a Professor of Social Work at McGill and a consultant to the mental hygiene institute. Only later did I become aware that the arms race had been going on all along, and was having a big leap forward.

CANDIS: During the war, what was your position?

GIFFORD: I was a navigator. I ended up as a “Squadron Leader,” which is the equivalent of a Major. We didn’t lead squadrons. The usual tour of duty was 30 trips, but our tour was called a double tour—forty five.

CANDIS: Did that affect your feelings afterwards about peace activities? Did you have any sense, when you were taking part in that Dresden bombing that—

GIFFORD: Well, the Dresden bombing was unique. Actually, I think I would have gotten involved in the peace movement anyway, but it certainly made it vivid what these mass destruction weapons were. The Dresden bombing was the only raid we went on where we didn’t like what we were going to do before we started. The Squadron Commander had said, “Well, we’ve got a juicy one tonight. It’s full of refugees.” We knew it hadn’t been seriously bombed in the war so we knew it was not an important military target, and we knew that the Russians were only 30 kilometers on the other side of it and moving fairly fast, and the Americans were 70 kilometers on this side. So we didn’t feel good about that one.

Like everyone else in the military, we had experiences of foul-ups. One of the bomber commanders, and one of the air vice marshals in charge of a bomber group were not talking to each other, so that group ran its own war: It sank a ship in the Norwegian fjords unnecessarily by sending 127 bombers went on a very dangerous mission. It didn’t need to have been sunk because it was closed in up there anyway. And Canadian bombers bombed our own troops at Caen and at Calais after the invasion. Dieppe was full of errors. So we all knew both about personal prejudices that influenced orders at the highest level, and about technical and human errors at all levels.

And so whenever we present a brief we say that all of us who have been in the service have experienced such errors. When you win the errors fade in importance, but with the huge power of these current weapons, we are troubled by our knowledge that those errors are bound to happen with them too, with effects that will be multiplied a million-fold. So it gives us a sense of urgency and some concrete illustrations of what it’s all about—images to use, like I use this one of the Dresden raid.

A single warhead on the cruise missile has 30 times the power of the whole Dresden raid. When the Trident II submarines come on in 1988, one of its missiles with 8 or 10 warheads will have the explosive power of all weapons used in World War II

three megatons. When you put all of its 24 missiles together, each one with 8 or 10 warheads (and they can have 14 or even 17 warheads)—how can such enormous amounts of killing power be used? What possible rationale is there?

CANDIS: Exactly. Tell me about how you started your group.

GIFFORD: We knew that there was going to be a peace march at the end of May here, so put an ad in our local newspaper asking veterans to support it. Halifax is a military city, you know. We got about fifty responses and we sent out a press release. There were news reports, like the Toronto Star story proclaiming “War Hero Condemns Arms Race.” That was referring to me! Peter Gzowski phoned the next day and talked with me 3 minutes on his program.

I wrote an article for the Legion Magazine, which goes into 500,000 homes in the country—the biggest circulation in the land. They got more letters to the editor from that article than they ever had before.

CANDIS: what do you see as the strategy of the peace movement? Have we failed? GIFFORD: Oh no, we’ve just begun! The growth and the spread of the peace movement since 1980 is absolutely phenomenal! There are over 1000 peace groups in Canada and new ones keep developing. Take Lawyers for Social Responsibility here. When I talked to them about a month ago they only had 3 members; ten days ago they had 25. Last night a woman told me that there’s now a United Church Network with representatives from 17 Halifax area churches. That’s new. And sol think there’s no question that the thing is spreading and we’re approaching the point where it’ll be irresistible.

The peace movement is the latest in a 200 year series of social movements associated Canadians bombed our own troops at Caen and Calais. Our knowledge that these errors are bound to happen is not reassuring. We have to multiply it a million-fold.

Next we put an ad in that magazine, which was $5000. We only got 100 responses to it. We’ve developed slowly but now have 350 or 400 members.

CANDIS: what do you make of Remembrance Day? And how do we win the support of Veterans?

GIFFORD: I think we should support the Legion in their observances of Remembrance Day. It means a lot to them—and to me too. I don’t go to a church or a parade usually, but I think of specific people. I would be happy if it were also a peace day, and I think it would be consistent with the logic of it, but that’s not the main thing. When I was in London I talked about this with the coordinator of Generals for Peace and Disarmament. He said he had talked with the head of the British Legion about some modification in the British ceremony and they weren’t ready for it, so instead the Ex-Services CND has started marching to the Cenotaph in Whitehall on the 3rd of September, which is the anniversary of the declaration of war in 1939. They may go to the Cenotaph with the British Legion, but they also hold this march on September 3.

Some of us give talks around here on November 11 to the veterans and sea cadets. We say that nuclear weapons have made war obsolete and we’d best remember our dead by working to end war. I think it’s with industrialization. Slavery is one of the other movements in that series. I’m sure you must know about the New Abolitionist Movement—for the abolition of war. Some other examples of social evils that have been abolished are the chaining of children to machines (which is not too distant in our past) and the fight to keep people ignorant—you know, the resistance to universal education. The fight to keep women as chattel of their husbands. One could list twenty. Here’s an example I used to use when teaching social change in the School of Social Work: When Oliver Wendell Holmes in Boston said that he had observed that post-childbirth infections were spread in the hospitals, he said physicians should wash their hands. And the medical associations replied that physicians are gentlemen: They don’t need to wash their hands!

In 1916 Sir Robert Borden, our Conservative Prime Minister, was visited by a delegation asking for the vote for women. He practically threw them out of his office. But the next year he was the one who introduced the legislation.

In all these movements resisting social improvement, the supporters were able to quote the Bible as saying that black man was meant to be subject to the white, that women were meant to be subject to their husbands, that we will always have the poor with us.

The Bible has always been interpreted as being on the side of the status quo. But they suddenly forget the Bible a year later or twenty years later. I think we’re approaching that critical mass—the change could happen suddenly.

There are three stages in the acceptance of an idea. The first is “It is unthinkable.” The second is “It is imaginable but impractical.” The third is “We thought that all along.”

But I’m not sure that the change is going to come in time. The powers against it are absolutely huge.

CANDIS: But you’re optimistic?

GIFFORD: No, I don’t say I’m either optimistic or pessimistic. All I know is that there have been many examples historically when the evil of some social institution has been recognized by a few people who’ve just gnawed and gnawed away at it until the government had to come around. That’s happening. One of my colleagues here who was 28 years in the service figures that at least a quarter of the people in uniform are with us.

CANDIS: Really! But they can openly speak in favor of it, can they?

GIFFORD: They could, but it would be a risk. In Germany they’re speaking in favor. I visited a serving Major from an old conservative, German military family recently who organized the Darmstadt Appeal—have you heard of it?


GIFFORD: It’s an appeal signed by serving people, by uniformed people, to reverse the distribution of nuclear weapons on German soil. In February when I saw him, it had 150 signatories and a lot of sympathizers. I asked him, “Hasn’t this affected your promotion?” He said, “Well yes, of course. I would be a Lieutenant Colonel now if I hadn’t done this—but Fm a free man!” The government tried to get legislation through the Bundestag making it illegal for people in uniform to be involved in politics, but it was voted down substantially, so he has legal backing now. They won’t publish the appeal in the military press, but the popular press has picked it up.

CANDIS: There are a lot of differing ideologies in the peace movement. How do you deal with that?

GIFFORD: Oh, I think there’s consensus on at least a minimum program. Peaceniks all agree that it’s important to work for a freeze and against cruise missiles. And the International Satellite Monitoring Agency

there is a high degree of consensus about that. It’s a pity to have to spend a lot of time on structure. I hope that the peace alliance will be a network rather than trying to be developing programs that everybody’s supposed to agree to. I’m glad the peace alliance is developing, but I think it’s also a real strength that there’s all these diverse groups. There’s not a lot of duplication. So if five people want to call themselves “Stamp Collectors Against Nuclear Weapons” that’s fine with me.

CANDIS: Where should the peace movement go from here?

GIFFORD: I see various possibilities. When I learned that Canada had voted in the United Nations against the freeze right in the middle of Trudeau’s peace mission, I really wondered for myself (I don’t think this applies to our organization) whether I wasn’t going to have to think seriously about civil disobedience. I think the vote in the United Nations for the freeze—whether it’s symbolic or not—is where the issue is put sharpest. If we don’t vote for the freeze we re automatically voting to continue the arms race. And so if they vote again against the freeze I’ll be reconsidering. The freeze would be the real focus of confrontation with the military-industrial complex. It’s sort of a watershed issue.

CANDIS: What have you got personally out of developing this organization?

GIFFORD: Oh it’s very good for my mental health! Before we started I was feeling concerned and tied down because of not having a good outlet but I don’t feel tied down anymore. I sometimes feel despair because of the hypocrisy. But then something comes up that shows that the yeast is working, not only on us, but on a lot of people. We took the President and President-Elect of our Legion branch out to lunch. One of them said, “Oh, Gee, I don’t think we could possibly have enough weapons. We have to have every weapon we can lay our hands on.” He was visibly upset, but now he certainly doesn’t agree with us but he’s used to our going in and out and we have press conferences in the Legion Branch. They don’t particularly like it, but they’ve found the sky hasn’t fallen because we exist. We don’t write off anybody—because a lot of people are changing!

Peace Magazine December 1985

Peace Magazine December 1985, page 17. Some rights reserved.

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