January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]
The centenary of the First World War is almost upon us. ‘The war to end war’ was merely a stepping stone to the Second World War and on to both small and massive conflagrations which continue today – some bearing the marks of the outcomes and imperialisms of that time, lines in the sand drawn by the powers that were, and enmities further stoked by that tragic and awful time. Field-Marshal Earl Wavell is quoted saying despondently of the Paris Peace Conference (held by the victors in 1919): "After the 'war to end war', they seem to have been in Paris at making the 'Peace to end Peace'".
How to remember, with dignity, those who died in war is problematic for everyone especially in the light of the fact that the militarily stronger states tend to use remembrance as a way to foster support for the state itself and its military. There is no sense from Britain, for example, that the state will recognise that the First World War was an event which should not have happened, and was unlikely to happen without the imperial rivalries which Britain itself did so much – arguably more than anyone else – to foment and strengthen. Indeed various recent British leaders have pointed favourably to the ‘civilising’ effects of British colonialism. Of course in a situation like this moral rectitude is not on any one, or any, side. All the powers involved in what became the First World War contributed to what was a human catastrophe of enormous proportions: perhaps 17 million dead (military and civilians), perhaps 21 million wounded, and countless lives wrecked in so many ways.
We have in the past dealt in these pages with various questions to do with remembrance of those who died in war, including the little war which took place recently in Northern Ireland. Our approach is that the courage of those killed should be recognised, if courage was involved, and their lives remembered. But then the waste of human life, and, insofar as it relates, the fact that those killed may have been trying to kill others, also needs recognised. And, in the context of the First World War, it should all be done in the context of the needless slaughter, appalling ineptitude, and callous disregard for life, for liberty, and for human rights which was part and parcel of that war. The ordinary soldier was most likely a victim of cruel historical circumstance much more than a willing killer and oppressor, though many were that too. Civilians in the wrong place and the wrong time were obviously victims.
Some civil society and certainly peace groups will be doing their best to mark the centenary of the First World War in a way which remembers and marks but does not glorify what cannot be glorified. Dying a bloody death in a filthy trench in the First World War was not glorious, it was tragic, and also unnecessary.
Oscar Wilde writes (in his story “A Portrait of Mr. W. H.”) that “a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.” A thing is also not necessarily true if ten or twenty million men die for it, and millions more women and children. But the blood sacrifice becomes so great that a ‘cause’ is not easily relinquished precisely because of that blood sacrifice which has taken place. It is ironic that the suffering and death of soldiers is used to justify further suffering and death across the board, and to try to bolster support for war.
It is sad that, a hundred years after this appalling slaughter, humanity has largely not learnt to be able to put war behind it. It is true that the kind of human loss of life suffered may not be tolerated today in some societies – that much has changed in many western countries – but if things go terribly wrong then the sky is still the limit to casualties. Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, to name but a few since the Second World War – the nightmare continues.
There are various organisations internationally which work on issues of conflict and try to intervene before matters escalate. There is an enormous amount of learning available from them and from history about how war can be avoided and how issues can be dealt with in a non-violent manner. Some of the learning concerns aspects of talking and communication, at the right time, in the right way, involving the right people, with the right support, and in a carefully designed process. But many wars today are internal rather than between states, or, if supported by outsiders are fought in one state. Powerholders, particularly brutal powerholders, do not relinquish easily the power they hold, so nonviolence has huge significance in moving beyond conflict.
The possibilities of nonviolent struggle, at every level, are still poorly understood. And especially poorly understood are the possibilities for nonviolent intervention in a mass form, or at a societal or international level. If the possibilities of nonviolence are so poorly understood we cannot blame those who turn to violence in circumstances in which they feel they have to do something. So there is certainly a huge challenge to those who believe in nonviolence to make it relevant, coherent and attractive as a means of struggle.
A particular challenge in Ireland is to be able to remember all who died in wars and Troubles, internally and externally, without forwarding an agenda which favours the British – or any other – military or paramilitary organisation. We need to resist the lure of those who, in the name of Protestant-Catholic reconciliation, seek to remember those who fought for the British in a way which adds to the acceptability of the role of the British Army today and the warmongering which the UK has continued to engage in. All those who died in violence deserve to be remembered, yes, including those who died in the UVF, UDA, IRA, INLA and so on. But insofar as it applies we should also understand their role in trying to kill others, or being part of a machine which killed others. Living by the sword can entail dying by the sword. We should be continually emphasising the alternatives to using that sword.
There is the added difficulty, in Northern Ireland, that some parts of the Protestant and loyalist community have appropriated the First World War to themselves. You have only to look at the iconography on the Shankill Road in Belfast to realise this; paramilitaries from the recent Troubles, particularly UVF, are remembered or represented by imagery from the First World War. The political message is plain: we fought and died for Britain, Britain should support us. While many of the original UVF joined the British Army en masse at the start of the First World War, many nationalists also, for their own reasons, joined up. But this makes sorting out a rational approach to the First World War more difficult.
There is a tendency in all of life to, in military terminology, ‘fight the last battle’, not to see that things have moved on, and to do things in a way which we have always done. Pushing out the boundaries of how things are done can be difficult but it is part of being nonviolent and being creatively nonviolent. Remembrance of those who have died in war has tended towards the static, and (literally) the monumental, with war memorials even when they declare themselves ‘peace’ memorials.
If people want to be creative about remembering the First World War, and the carnage involved, living memorials are possible. There are very varied opportunities to actually do something positive in the world in the name of remembering (and having learnt from) the dead and the destruction. People can support organisations working on conflict issues, at home and abroad; this support can take many different forms. People can support, financially and otherwise, humanitarian work with those affected by war today, such as Syrian refugees and displaced people inside Syria. People can be creative in helping ourselves and others in learning from past and present conflicts and exploring non-violent possibilities. A physical war memorial may be a visible reminder of loss and sacrifice but it can also become a badge of resentment, a stone in the heart, a symbol of not moving on. How better to remember those who died than to do something for those suffering from, or at risk of, conflict today? That is to remember, and learn.
2014 is also the centenary of the foundation of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) – with which INNATE is associated. The Fellowship of Reconciliation began as a Christian organisation just as the First World War was starting; IFOR is now an inter-faith body though with a Christian identity in places. It has groups and organisations as members or contacts around the globe. Its mission statement goes: “Founded in 1914 in response to the horrors of war in Europe, IFOR has taken a consistent stance against war and its preparation throughout its history. Perceiving the need for healing and reconciliation in the world, the founders of IFOR formulated a vision of the human community based upon the belief that love in action has the power to transform unjust political, social, and economic structures.” The IFOR website is at www.ifor.org
Note: The editorial feature in the 2014 Housmans Peace Diary is on how we should approach the 100th anniversary of the First World War (see news item this issue).
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
We are so embedded in our culture, so focused on attending to the necessities of daily life that we are often blind to the contradictions between our declared values and beliefs and how we live. This disconnect in regard to the religious became apparent to me on observing the enormous amount of car parking space churches provide for their faithful. At one Catholic Church I counted 280 spaces. This is on a par with what the big supermarkets provide for their customers. Adjacent to the car park was an almost equal amount of land reserved for the deceased.
Car parking space of supermarket proportions encourages the use of the private car, which makes a major contribution to global warming leading in turn to the extinction of life and the collapse of ecosystems. Undermining ecology multiplies the suffering of the poorest of humanity. Yet, one would have thought that of all the different groups in society the religious would exemplify a life of care and respect for nonhuman nature as destroying it desecrates the handiwork of God. This is clearly stated in the primary texts of the major religions. The Book of Numbers in the Christian bible states that the Earth is sacred and should not be polluted or defiled. Numbers 35: 33-34 advises:
“You shall not pollute the land in which you live .... You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell.”
The ethic of respect for nonhuman nature is repeated throughout the bible often accompanied by the scientifically supported warning that if the Earth is defiled humankind will suffer the consequences. Further, God proclaims that all animals, inclusive of Homo Sapiens, have equal merit. In Ecclesiastes 3:19 we are told:
For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breathe, and humans have no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place, all are from the dust, and all return to dust.”
Contrary to God’s explicitly expressed directive about how humans should interact with nonhuman nature, and the revered status with which it should be held, the main religions have traditionally regarded other life forms as mere utility. This hubris has brought catastrophe to the planet and may lead to what many dare not contemplate our early extinction. That we are doing practically nothing to address global warming suggests this might be the outcome.
A change in our attitude towards nonhuman nature is possible. In Pope Francis’s recent interview with the editor of La Civitta Cattolica (http://www.americanmagazine.org/pope-interview) he gives a distinctly ecological view of human relations saying:
“No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.”
The pope also spoke of “God in creation” and “love of all things in God” which implicitly means all life, from microbes to Giant Redwood Trees, is sacred. What the pontiff unfortunately did not do to do was ask the faithful to live in an environmentally sustainable way so as not to desecrate the sacred, unstring the interconnecting web of biodiversity Catholics believe God created. On the eve of the publication of the International Panel on Climate Change’s new report (27.09.13) this was a missed opportunity, unless his extolling the virtues of living “on the frontier” was a message to the faithful to do so.
When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 he was so exasperated by the apparent inability of political commentators to understand what most concerned the voters that he often said: “It’s the economy stupid.” (A slight variation of this phrase was coined by James Carville, his campaign strategist.) Something similar could be said about our collective failure to realise our place in the community of living things, but I won’t be rude.