Reflections on War and Peace-The Warrior and the Pacifist Traditions
Kevin P Clements
National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.
Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. All of the people who fought in that war have well and truly passed on. All that remains of those killed are thousands of white crosses in Turkey, Belgium, and France; individual names inscribed on war memorials all around the world and millions of personal family memories . These memories are wrapped up in poems, diaries, letters , films , yellowing photographs and stories that have passed down through generations. All of them a largely mute legacy to a cataclysmic moment in history.
New Zealand mobilised and dispatched 110,000 men and women to the First World war. 18,000 New Zealanders were killed and 55,000 were wounded . There were 73,000 casualties in total, or 66% of all those who were dispatched to the front. There were very few families in New Zealand unaffected directly or indirectly by someone killed or wounded in the First World War. Those who returned from these battles were often “walking wounded” — emotionally and physically scarred for life by their experiences. Our casualty figures were reflected in similar or larger numbers in other allied countries and in those of our enemies as well.
First World War soldiers like John A Lee, Ormond Burton, and others, who returned to New Zealand as distinguished war heroes, were appalled at the huge gap between political rhetoric at home and the soldiers’ realities and experiences of war. They committed themselves to ensuring that “the war to end all war “ really did that. They knew from personal experience that the First World War was not a glorious war. It was a messy, bloody, and in the end, unnecessary war serving very particular imperial interests . They worked hard to ensure that such wars never happened again and yet 21 years later the world was embroiled in even more sophisticated slaughter in the Second World War. This war ( which was arguably the most just of all the 20th century wars) in turn led to the long Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Malayan Emergency, and all the conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st century.
So why should we remember the First World War ?
There are a number of reasons:
he first is that it gives us a chance to reflect on the selflessness of service in a world increasingly dedicated to selfishness. It reminds us that at moments of national danger we can override our individual interests in the service of the common good even to the point of paying the ultimate sacrifice. Generation Xers and Yers are not as familiar with the notion of public service and the common good as my parents and grandparents were and yet even they know, in their heart of hearts ,that without these values life for most is nasty solitary,brutish and short. We need to recapture these qualities of unselfish service if NZ is to fulfil its promise as a vibrant egalitarian democracy.
Second for many of us post Second World War baby boomers, we are closely linked to all the 20th century cataclysms. My father, for example, was born in 1914 and my mother in 1918. They spanned the First World War. It’s consequences affected their perceptions as they tried to make sense of the turbulent years of the 1920s and 1930s and as they confronted the challenges posed by the depression, fascism and the Second World War. We who are left have to make sense of their experiences /memories /histories as they have had a powerful impact on our own.
Third , it is absolutely vital that those of us who have not had direct experience of war learn from those who did. We need to understand what war means in terms of human misery and carnage. The fact that human beings emerge from war with some measure of dignity intact is a testimony to the power of the human spirit in the face of appalling adversity. We need to learn from this spirit so that we understand something of the ways in which individuals protect their humanity in the face of powerful dehumanising forces. In war there is a heightened confrontation with death. It is vital that we understand how people confront that reality under those circumstance in order to understand how to deal with death in normal times.
Fourth, the First and Second World Wars were the first examples of what we now know as total war, fought with modern technology and with devastating consequences. The Vickers Machine Guns, Tanks, Poison Gas, War Planes and other Weapons of Mass destruction obliterated the distinction between civilian and soldier and the doctrines that went with this distinction. We need to remember this in order to remind ourselves that the new Weapons of Mass destruction if used in a Third World War would likely result in the ending of all civilisation.
Fifth, the military men and women who have fought in war understand better than political leaders who have not something of the challenges that war poses to their profession and indeed to their humanity. This is why serving military are often much more prudent and less jingoistic than politicians when it comes to understanding the hazards of violent conflict and of the challenge of keeping their personal integrity in the face of military challenge. We remember war to remind ourselves of its fogginess and brutality
Finally, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the on going wars in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan all stand in a relatively uninterrupted line of 20th and 21st century violence. If this century is to be the age of maturity it is vital that we learn from the mistakes of the past so that we are not doomed to repeat these in the future. It is by learning from past mistakes that we can best honour the memories of those who fought and died for us.
So irrespective of what we might think about the political merits of all these wars we must respect and honour the memories of those who fought in them and survived and we must especially remember those who fought in them and did not return. Both have lessons to teach us about life, death, and the retention of our humanity in the face of appalling circumstances.
I would also like to take advantage of this moment to honour those who did not fight, This act, which was so often misunderstood at the time , also required a certain kind of courage-namely the courage to say no to the state and to public opinion at a time of national crisis. The actions of those who said no added to our freedom by creating a space for dissent which is also essential to a flourishing democracy.
I would like to honour both the warriors and the pacifists. Despite the rhetoric about the redemptive power of violence and fighting for freedom and democracy. The reality of war is far from redemptive. People go into war as innocents and come out battered. It is vital, therefore, that at this moment of remembrance we do not wallow in the memory of war or glorify it for there is little that is glorious in it. On the contrary it is imperative that we remember in order to resist all future wars.
In overcoming the simplistic dualisms that lie at the heart of war-peace talk. We have to embrace, embody and honour the warrior and the pacifist –both need each other. The warrior has to be reminded of the inevitability of peace and the pacifist needs to be reminded not to be naïve about the realities of power.
My own family embodied these tensions. My Uncle, Owen Gatman, for example, chose to fight in the Second World War and was killed at Siddi Rezeg in Libya. His letters have been published in a book entitled “On Active Service”. In 1940 he was much cheered by the King’s Empire broadcast in which the King said “ Keep your hearts proud and your resolve unshaken. Let us go forward to that task as one man, a smile on your lips and our heads held high. With God’s help we shall not fail” . Of course German soldiers went off to war with the same thought that God was on their side as well.
My father , on the other hand, chose to conscientiously object to war and spent the duration in detention. As a Methodist Minister he could not reconcile the Old Testament injunction “ Thou Shalt not Kill” or the New Testament injunction to love those that persecuted you with the State’s request that he join the army and learn how to kill. He saw no ethical distinction between murder as an individual act and killing as part of the New Zealand army. As the war progressed and he became aware of the specific evils of fascism he was constantly plagued by anxiety about whether his decision was the right one. In the end, however, he decided that his stand did generate a creative tension between the violent/non violent options but he always felt conflicted. Uncle Owen wrote on April 11 1941 “ I truly hope that Les Clements will change his views about Pacifism-what he sees in his glorious stand does not work very well here at the present time!” This was written from Greece just before Owen was evacuated to Crete.
One can see in these exchanges though that there was a deep tension—and still is—between those who wish to pursue Peace through force or peace through friendly persuasion. These are truly cosmic questions. What is the best path to peace is something that has engaged men and women of goodwill, from all the major faiths for millennia. Indeed the bible is ,to some extent, one long record of violence and how Jews and Christians have grappled with that violence.
Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew tribes, for example was viewed as a warrior God. There was a simultaneous recognition on the part of religioius teachers, even in Old Testament times that they could not live in a state of war and so they focused attention on how to generate the conditions for justice and peace. In particular they understood the dehumanising effects of war and how it brutalised people.
Then along came Jesus with his message of love. “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth….but I say to you love your enemies, do good to those who wish to do ill and do not be overcome by evil defeat it with goodness”
So we have two very contradictory impulses that lie at the heart of all Abrahamic faiths- the warrior and pacifist traditions—they coexist in a very uneasy tension.The challenge is how to deal with that contradiction so that we affirm life giving forces and the power of the creative spirit rather than succumb to and indulge the destructive one? How do we avoid a false glorification of war and stop peddling myths about its heroic and redemptive qualities? How can we discern and advance human possibility when we divide the world into goodies and baddies – the righteous and unrighteous?
This is what we are grappling with in our faith traditions it is also what we are grappling with in the newly developed National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago.
In our Centre we wish to understand, prevent and creatively transform violence in the home, violence in schools, violence in the community. We are dedicated to challenging the logic of dominance and replacing it with the logic of love, relationship and community? How do we celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity instead of being challenged by it? How do we deal with terrorist threat without declaring a war on terror—which is an oxymoron anyway given that it is hard to fight against an abstract noun! This is what we are focusing our academic attention on but these are also profoundly religious challenges as well.
How do we balance the demands of church and state/Caesar and Jesus/peace and justice? There have been a variety of answers to this through history—When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian there was a fusion of Church and State which meant that defence of the state was also a defence of Christianity and vice versa.
Nowadays there is much more likely to be a division between Church and State and this is how it should be. The Global Peace Index which I am associated with discovered last year that religion is a primary precipitant of conflict when it is linked to power and politics. When political leaders seek to use religion for their purposes or religious leaders seek to link their beliefs to political power, is when religiously based violence becomes likely. The separation of Synagogue, Church,Temple, Mosque and State systems therefore is critical to peacefulness. Weapons of mass destruction mean that we can no longer claim that the interests of communities of faith are served by the interests of the state.
We need to be able to adopt a more critical stance. In order to do this we need to understand something about the causes of violence and how these might be addressed non violently The challenge is how to deal with that conflict creatively and non-violently ? If we cannot deal with problems non violently then we need to know how to stop violence and then how to heal the wounds generated by it. This is a challenge since we know from a lot of research that once people have experienced a violent conflict, the chance of lapsing back into violence within five years is doubled . If they experience two violent conflicts in 5 years the chances of a third incidence is quadrupled. This is known by the World Bank as the conflict trap.
Our challenge as Christians, as human beings, as members of human communities is to work out how to prevent such violence in the future. We need the support of all faith communities and all who are interested in preventing the sort of carnage that we remember on the 100th anniversary of a war of unimaginable slaughter.. To do this effectively we need love, courage and hope .These were the qualities that enabled individuals to survive the carnage of the First World War and all subsequent wars. It is the power of love, kindness, humility and compassion that enables us to maintain our human integrity, our wholeness, our aliveness our humanity. This is what enables us to live meaningful lives in the face of almost certain death.
My Uncle Owen’s letters, for example, were all about friends, family, lovers, community and the memory of better times. They were also about the boredom of war and its nerve breaking tensions. To my great Aunt Alice just after the horrors of Crete he wrote:
“ Stories of hopeless and desperate soldiers lying side by side with the hellish enemy breathing their last hours away. The sin of it all! Never again do I want to fight under such conditions. What a terrible tragedy this beast of Berlin has cast on his people and ours? What a lot he will have to account for before his maker! What a golden thread of courageous faith is this for us who recognise our ability to see beautiful things amidst the trials of battles-the beauty is sunset and dawn made one by nature. Bombs, shells, poison gas, cannot and will not wreck our faith in human nature or our love for this everlasting right. We know that whatsoever sorrows have darkened this world, beauty still remains. Beauty still remains and beauty is an expression of the mind of God. Cheer up! Dear one, be hopeful, life will not be in vain, after the storms of winter roses will bloom again. I am supremely thankful that in the kindness of loved ones, even if we are separated for a while, we can find rest and security. ”
Thus we remember war and the pity of war so that we can find that deepest source of love, life, security and fearlessness. This source does not flow from powers and principalities or from the most sophisticated bombers, missiles , and submarines. Rather it comes from that deep affirmation of all that binds us together as human beings. In particular it flows from an enhancement of our capacity to take delight in the beauty that exists all around us and in the creative responses we make to this beauty; it requires an ability to see ourselves in webs of relationships and in communities that sustain and nurture our ability to be fully alive and fully human. Most of all it requires courage and an acceptance of the risks in peace-building.
Two weeks before my Uncle was killed he wrote ( after three days of desert battle):
“It is now that I often think of home and wonder what everybody is doing, for I feel you all very near and dear to me. I appreciate the life-like pictures that are painted for me within the pages sent so regularly. I can see in my minds eye all the beauty and splendour of blossoms, flowers, roses-they bloom again within my central being , and the dullness and the loneliness of this wild desert waste disappears from my view. I am uplifted to greater and nobler hopes and desires of things that will emerge out of this chaos. I look forward to my return home with a wild longing… Lots of love Owen xxxxx”
In the face of this sentiment we who remember have a responsibility to ensure that never again will there be such chaos. We have to learn better ways of building peace. We have to celebrate life as though we are all to die tomorrow. We have to learn forgiveness and compassion and most of all we need to acknowledge that our capacity to be who we are rests on the quality of our relationships with others. There is a poem by Alistair Campbell called Journey from Despair–but it works well with a call to Christian peacemaking.
Forgiveness is a journey I must take
Alone into my childish fears, and there
Confront my fathers for my children’s sake.
I must go before I cease to care,
And the world darkens and I cannot move.
Forgiveness is a journey from despair
Along a path my ancestors approve.
I must go back and with them make my peace:
Forgiveness is a journey into love!