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Received in the mail at 1 Peace Passage:
‘I am a member of the ..... branch of CND. In theory, I object to all forms of war. I do have problems, however, when considering evil regimes such as Hitler’s, for example, and his desire to invade this country. While advocating jaw, jaw, jaw over war, war, war whenever possible, I fail to see how this would prevail with a megalomaniac dictator. And how would any of us react to a violent intruder in our house, or anywhere else, who threatened our families? As I say, I am totally opposed to violence in theory but do have a few practical problems. I would be grateful if you could spare the time to respond.’
Thank you for your letter.
People are deeply attached to the idea of war. However much some of us dislike it, most see war as an inescapable feature of life and that view lies deep. So deep, that most people also find it difficult to see that there are other ways of looking at the problems for which armed violence is so often seen as a solution. They find it hard to see how aggressors, from megalomaniac dictators to violent intruders, can be dealt with except in the time-honoured way: being aggressive back.
We all hold views about the world that fundamentally contradict each other. Did you ever see that old movie about runaway computers about to wipe out the human race? Ingenious boffins fed the computers with contradictory information and so with many flashes and puffs of smoke saved the day. Back then it was well understood (we know better now) that computers, being ‘logical’, couldn’t cope with conflicting data. Human beings have no such problems. Our value systems are packed with contradictions, but we don’t burn out, we just shake our heads in despair. Well we might: what is the point of being ‘against war’, while at the same time supporting it?
Think, for example, of the Pro-Life (a name George Orwell would have appreciated for its irony) lobby in the USA. Its more extreme supporters apparently countenance the killing of doctors and nurses to stop them from terminating (by request) unwanted pregnancies. Terminating the life of fellow human beings is acceptable to the most militant Pro-Lifers, if it saves a clutch of cells. Most pro-lifers would not go that far though they are not well know for their pacifist tendencies. So what sort of life is it, exactly, that they are ‘pro’?
Here is another: ‘War is peace’. In Orwell’s ‘1984’, this is a totalitarian lie. But it could just as well be a description of the world we live in. The problem is that some words like ‘war’ and ‘peace’ carry too heavy a burden of meanings: it makes them hard to handle, though we do struggle on. Many people would now agree that ‘peace is more than the absence of war’: there are many reasons why ‘peace is the absence of war’ is no longer a satisfactory statement. But we now need to think more deeply than that. War is more than the presence of armed fighting which is only the visible and bloody manifestation of a social, political and economic system which isn’t primed to put human welfare first, whatever the people running it may say.
More: that system is the same system that can produce real and imaginary bogeys ‘evil empire’, ‘megalomaniacal dictator’, ‘axis of evil’ to frighten the innocent and supply ‘moral’ justification for immoral acts of self-interest. Killing people for cheap petrol is a contradiction too far for most people. Recognising this means acknowledging the corrupt core of what we proudly call civilisation, and stripping away the coat of glossy varnish which hides the spreading areas of rotten fabric beneath.
Regrettably, most people don’t get far enough in thinking about war, and simply see it as something unpleasant that sometimes has to happen. Some think it’s necessary to the way we live (as butchering pigs or shooting beef cattle is necessary to put meat on the table). Some think war is necessary if we are to (as it is often put) ‘live in freedom’ and ‘free from fear’. You say that ‘in theory you object to all forms of war’. But isn’t that simply a way of saying that you are uncomfortable with the idea of war but in practice don’t entirely object to it?
Fear is a powerful tool in the armoury of persuaders fear of the ‘evil Hun’ at the beginning of the 20th century, the ‘evil empire’ at its end, and WMD in the 21st. It makes most of us acquiesce not only in bloody fighting but also in the spending of billions, year after year, on military hardware and human software as if such an outlay could protect us from ‘evil’, like a kind of secular indulgence (as ineffective, though not as harmless, as the religious kind).
The competitive build-up of weapons, apart from impoverishing us all, creates the damaging mistrust that often leads to war. It feeds the fiction that war arsenals are essential for peaceful life. Possessing them breeds dangerous illusions in the minds of those who have the power to unleash the tanks, the aircraft, the missiles. Some believe that they can use force to right wrongs. For others force is a source of power and glory for themselves and their supporters.
Working within this murderous system there are certainly good men and women who sincerely believe that with cruise missiles and nuclear weapons they can do good and some are even prepared to risk their lives for their belief. But sincerity is no proof of effectiveness or truth. The 20th century saw the greatest amassing of weapons in history. Over 200 million people were killed - that in the previous millennia - and there seems to be no end in sight.
The new ‘war on terror’ is a nonsensical concept, but it has been eagerly taken up. Militarists deprived of the old enemy, communism, use it to justify the existence of themselves and their huge arsenals. Political leaders, eager to shore up their hold on power, use it to spread fear and justify repressive legislation. Countries around the world are now ‘on a war footing’, not against armies or nuclear weapons ready to fire, but against phantoms. Missile batteries set up all round Washington, Heathrow and other airports patrolled by tanks, flights cancelled, people imprisoned without trial: an already dangerous world is being made more dangerous. Determined people can do great harm, but cancelling flights, imprisoning a few people and bombing Iraq is clearly not the way to deal with such problems.
What about the megalomaniac dictators? Look behind the military façade, and look at history: you can see where most have come from; they have not appeared ready made. Many have been ‘made in the USA’. Britain, France, the former Soviet Union, China have made a few of their own, too. Yes, we do have to find ways of dealing with unpleasant, murderous people and there are plenty of them. But they come to power with help from many people and many agencies in many places. It is in that process that we have to intervene. Which means putting respect for people first. You can’t engender respect for fellow human beings by bombing them, imprisoning them, torturing them, exploiting them.
That means developing the political will to choose to reject armed violence. And that isn’t likely to happen unless far more of us take a moral and/or practical stand against war-making. It’s time we placed disarmament on the political agenda because it is only when we start a genuine process of disarmament that we will have any hope of securing a less violent world. It’s a troubling and dangerous question to ask oneself, but here it is: how many people’s deaths in war are you prepared to accept so that you can sleep in peace?
The violent intruder? Myself, I make sure I know where all the exits are.