St Pauls Cathedral during an air raid in the blitz, 29 December 1940. An iconic image of World War Two.
As I find myself again, for at least the third time in a little over a decade, arguing for some sort of military action, I struggle to reconcile my belief in nonviolence and my abhorrence of war with my advocacy for military means to end conflicts. I am trying to recognize and give voice to my doubts, and I find myself unsettled that I seem more decided on war this time than I usually am. So I find I need to stop and acknowledge that I think of this as a failure of myself and my imagination, and a failure of our collective capability to create peace and contain conflict.
Whenever I find myself caught up in the prelude to war, I am reminded of all the descriptions I have read of the weeks before World War One, the great, fevered longing for the honourable, vital purge of Europe. No war was entered into with more enthusiasm in the minds of the people. And no war was a greater mistake, more pointless, less meaningful. It was war for nothing. A generation of men lost for no reason at all. As someone — George Monbiot? — once drily commented, the soldiers would have been far more ably served by turning their weapons on their leaders.
The Guardian has an arresting piece today on the centennial for the First World War which begins next year. If this piece is correct, a lot of work is going into making the war seem glorious and honourable. This is a basic failure, if true, to see the war as the historical disaster that it was. The difference must be understoof between the honour and bravery of individual soldiers or companies of soldiers (or, indeed, of the unacknowledged bravery of civilians in all wars) and the fundamental horror and gibbering lunacy of the war itself, the irrationality of which is clearly visible to us in hindsight.
“The war will be presented as something glorious and part of our national heritage, when it isn’t really”, musician Brian Eno says of the campaign, “It was a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation”.
Bertrand Russell, playboy philosopher, circa 1916.
Luckily, activists are trying to organise events and campaigns honouring the pacifists and anti-war protesters of World War One. I have profound respect for these Cassandras who futilely tried to ward off the catastrophe. Bertrand Russell — one of the anti-war movement’s leading intellectuals, and a personal hero of mine — has some wonderful descriptions in his Memoirs of seeing his country delirious with war fever. Especially memorable is this passage, in which he is beginning an affair with Collette, another anti-war activist.
When I came to make the speech, I saw her on one of the front seats, so I asked her after the meeting to come to supper at a restaurant, and then walked back with her. This time I came in, which I had not done before. She was very young, but I found her possessed of a degree of calm courage as great as Ottoline’s (courage is a quality that I find essential in any woman whom I am to love seriously). We talked half the night, and in the middle of talk became lovers. There are those who say that one should be prudent, but I do not agree with them. We scarcely knew each other, and yet in that moment there began for both of us a relation profoundly serious and profoundly important, sometimes happy, sometimes painful, but never trivial and never unworthy to be placed alongside of the great public emotions connected with the War. Indeed, the War was bound into the texture of this love from first to last. The first time that I was ever in bed with her (we did not go to bed the first time we were lovers, as there was too much to say), we heard suddenly a shout of bestial triumph in the street. I leapt out of bed and saw a Zeppelin falling in flames. The thought of brave men dying in agony was what caused the triumph in the street. Colette’s love was in that moment a refuge to me, not from cruelty itself, which was unescapable, but from the agonising pain of realising that that is what men are. I remember a Sunday which we spent walking on the South Downs. At evening we came to Lewes Station to take the train back to London. The station was crowded with soldiers, most of them going back to the Front, almost all of them drunk, half of them accompanied by drunken prostitutes, the other half by wives or sweethearts, all despairing, all reckless, all mad. The harshness and horror of the war world overcame me, but I clung to Colette. In a world of hate, she preserved love, love in every sense of the word from the most ordinary to the most profound, and she had a quality of rock-like immovability, which in those days was invaluable.
British infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos, taken by a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade (1/5th Battalion, The London Regiment), September 25th, 1915.
The image of private love, physical and emotional, as sanctuary from, and the opposite of, the bestial fervour of the war in the streets and the skies is indeed a powerful image. But also a reminder that it should always be included among the “great public emotions” that war produces. Love reminds us of what the nature of war is.
And in applauding the work of these activists, we need to remember that the age of full wartime conscription were not days that were tolerant of conscientious objectors. Anti-war activists were frequently jailed for their work. Some of the most dedicated conscientious objectors were assaulted and shunned. A few faced the death penalty for refusing to carry out orders (but to my knowledge, none were ever actually killed, thankfully).
Russell quotes a translation of a Chinese poem sent to him while he was in jail for his own work against the war.
Sent as a present from Annam—
A red cockatoo.
Colored like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.
And they did to it what is always done
To the learned and eloquent.
They took a cage with stout bars
And shut it up inside.
Virginia Woolf has a beautiful paragraph that opens her piece “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940):
The Germans were over this house last night and the night before that. Here they are again. It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet, which may at any moment sting you to death. It is a sound that interrupts cool and consecutive thinking about peace. Yet it is a sound—far more than prayers and anthems—that should compel one to think about peace. Unless we can think peace into existence we—not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born—will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead. Let us think what we can do to create the only efficient air-raid shelter while the guns on the hill go pop pop pop and the searchlights finger the clouds and now and then, sometimes close at hand, sometimes far away, a bomb drops.
The idea of thinking peace into existence, of peace as the only certain shelter from war, is one I am drawn to. I have always seen war as a failure of the collective imagination. A failure of recognition, of mutuality.
We should respect that rational pursuit of our interest will sometimes drive us into armed conflict with other rational actors, and recognise that rational actors can’t necessarily contain the chaos created by irrational ones. We should stop treating war as some bizarre aberration and rather study it — as scholars of peace and conflict studies are doing — as the outgrowth and predictable effect of organising international and national societies in the way we do. But I refuse to believe that it is an inevitable one. We should always see war as a fundamental failure.
And though I keep to the idea that the international community should punish the war crimes of the Assad regime, I also need to keep reminding myself of the unbearable costs and the tragic nature — in the greek sense — of war. This is why we should admit loss whenever we find ourselves in this situation, of advocating war as the preferred option. And we should keep thinking peace into being. If the decision is to use force, then we should redouble all our other efforts to create peace.
I’m reminded of the Joshua AI’s line in the cold war era film WarGames. After running through every simulation of a thermonuclear war, it concludes: “a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
A brief addendum: One of the activists for the anti-war centennial is the wonderful poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Below is her WWI poem, “Last Post”, which she wrote for Harry Patch, the last veteran of WWI to die. Patch said this about his experiences in the trenches: “Too many died. War isn’t worth one life”. Duffy’s beautiful vision of soldiers rising from their graves is a tribute both dulce and decorum.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud …
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home –
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now to die and die and die.
Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too —
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert —
and light a cigarette.
There’s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queueing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly write it backwards,
then it would.