“... the army demands huge budgets to stimulate research and guide it into specific channels, and youth is being indoctrinated with the spirit of nationalism. All this is done in preparation for the day when the spectre may come to life. Unfortunately, these very policies are the most effective way of actually bringing the spectre into being.”
Albert Einstein, 1953
Like Albert Einstein, I am a pacifist, and have been since I was four years old. Witnessing playground fights between individuals or rival gangs in primary school, I realised that the only results were that one or more people got hurt and existing resentments were further fuelled. Both results seemed entirely negative. It didn't take a genius to realise that the international playground fights we call wars are equally negative in their results, only people get not merely hurt but killed. At four years old, it was obvious that violence and anger simply perpetuate violence and anger, and that individuals or nations fighting each other inevitably results in losses that outweigh any possible gain. Except, of course, for those who manufacture and sell arms, who benefit hugely from promoting conflict. I have never since wavered in this belief.
Those who oppose pacifism often try to portray pacifists as cowards. This ignores just how difficult a choice pacifism is in a society where violence is so often admired, applauded and rewarded, from the fortunes paid to boxers to the medals awarded to soldiers.
From 1964 to 1970, I attended a Grammar school that had a boarding section where boys who had failed their 11-plus exam were sent by parents who could afford the fees. Failing the entrance exam, and being farmed out by their parents, led them to harbour huge resentments against us 'day boys.' As a strange child and a pacifist, I was singled out for special and sustained hostility. I was bullied every day of my school life, if not by fellow pupils then by teachers. That of my fellow pupils tended to be mainly verbal, although tripping up or pushing over were commonplace. In such circumstances, pacifism is far from being an easy option. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to respond in kind, and might well have saved me six years of mental torture and physical cruelty. I had, however, made a commitment to pacifism and refused to strike back, whatever the provocation. This simply reinforced my target status. Bullies famously being cowards meant that picking on someone who they knew would not strike back was seen as a gift. I became adept at fending off potential physical assaults with words. Since I was more intelligent than the bullies, this was relatively easy. As a result of my verbal skill, I never came to any serious physical harm.
Staff at the school harboured resentments of their own and were happy to take them out on any slightly unusual pupils through regular acts of random violence. Teachers meted out blows to the head with an open palm, blows elsewhere on the body with slippers, and occasionally more formal canings. Some preferred more refined tortures such as grabbing the nipple under the shirt and twisting it, or grabbing and twisting hair at the side of the head near the ear. Both were excruciatingly painful.
One teacher, having hit me for no reason the day before, apparently felt guilty about it and invited me to punch him in the stomach in return. I refused. He repeated the offer, assuring me that he wouldn't hit me back. Again, I refused, explaining to him that I was a pacifist. Eventually, he gave up trying to get me to punch him. It was clear that he found the idea of not responding to being hit by striking back both worrying and confusing.
Having left school, I adopted the lifestyle of an itinerant hippy, often sleeping rough. Like most homeless people, I was occasionally subjected to violence. Whilst napping in Hyde Park, I was woken up by three policemen kicking me. I had a knife held to my throat in an alleyway in Hastings Old Town. I was shot at from a passing car in the south of France. On none of these occasions was I afraid. I never froze, trembled or crumbled, but nor did I react with violence. While the policemen were kicking me, I engaged them in conversation. They stopped. With a knife at my throat, I talked my would-be assailant out of using it. He left town the following day. The gunman in France being in a passing car, the opportunity to talk never arose.
I've looked at how pacifists have responded to various wars, and how they have been treated as a result. This interest stemmed from my father (right) telling me that he had repeatedly been handed white feathers as emblems of his perceived cowardice during the second world war. The reason was that he was a man of fighting age who was not wearing a military uniform. He was, in fact, in a protected occupation, supervising quality control in a factory making parts for fighter planes. He was also an air raid warden, a job that sometimes involved aiding other services in rescuing people from bombed and burning buildings. Despite which, he was branded a coward by people who knew nothing whatsoever of his circumstances.
My father was not a pacifist, but he did mention others who had been treated similarly, including being spat upon in the street, because they refused to fight, not out of cowardice, but because of firm convictions that war is not a rational or sensible way to conduct human affairs. He told me that such people were often imprisoned. I later learned that draft boards in many conflicts, from WWI to Vietnam and beyond, regularly refused to accept pacifism as a valid reason not to conscript people into the armed forces. Pacifists so conscripted were then required to fight and shot by their fellow soldiers if they refused, either with or without a court-martial. In spite of which, many pacifists did refuse to fight, preferring to face a firing squad than to kill fellow humans. It seems to me that such a decision under these circumstances is extraordinarily courageous.
Nevertheless, I seem to be in a minority. Most people seem to find war a perfectly acceptable, albeit regrettable, way of settling differences between people. Even many soldiers who have fought in wars, experienced their horror, and suffered appalling long-term physical and psychological effects as a result, still believe that warfare is, if not a good thing, then at least justifiable in a wide range of circumstances. I simply refuse to believe that. However hard I try, I can't bring myself to accept that, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are unable to devise a better way to handle national, international, doctrinal or political disputes than dropping bombs on people, shooting them or gassing them. Is this really the best our species can manage? Really?
Can we learn from past mistakes?
As a keen amateur historian, it bewilders me that we never seem to learn from history. WWII would never have happened had it not been for WWI and its aftermath. Had the CIA not provided training and weapons for insurgents in Afghanistan, using them as a proxy army to oppose the Russian occupation of that country, there would have been no Taliban, and probably no Al-Qaida. Violent Islamic extremism would certainly not have emerged as the threat it is today had it not been for the 1990-91 Gulf War and the subsequent 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence breeds violence. Hatred breeds hatred. Intolerance breeds intolerance. Wars breed wars. These things have been witnessed again and again with the inevitability of night following day, winter following summer.
It's not as if there are no options other than war. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Hans Blix (left) and teams of UN inspectors were still working there, looking for the “weapons of mass destruction” that were touted by US President, George W. Bush, and UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as the reasons why we had to invade. The inspectors on the ground had already gathered enough evidence to strongly doubt that any such weapons existed. Given a few more weeks, they would have proven that beyond doubt. Instead, they were told to stop work and go home, and the invasion went ahead, with the predictably disastrous results that continue to plague us. Not least of which is the rise of violent Islamic extremism.
When faced with an external threat, the question inevitably arises, if not war, then what? The short answer is, of course, peace. Even Winston Churchill, a former soldier himself, and having just led Britain through perhaps the modern world's most justifiable war, still had the sense to say that it is always “better to jaw jaw than war war.” My friend and fellow pacifist, Paul Davies, sent me the link below. It outlines eight non-violent alternative ways to resolve conflicts, all of which have been used successfully in recent years, either alone or in conjunction. Please take a look. It makes inspiring reading.
To encourage you to go and look, here are the 'headlines' of the eight methods suggested:
1. Ally-building and the infrastructure of economic development
2. Reducing cultural marginalization
3. Nonviolent protest/campaigns among the defenders, plus unarmed civilian peacekeeping
4. Pro-conflict education and training (yes, that really is what it says)
5. Post-terror recovery programs
6. Police as peace officers: the infrastructure of norms and laws
7. Policy changes and the concept of reckless behaviour
The article refers to specific conflicts in which these techniques have been successfully used. If others can do it, why can't we? I believe that the answer is that we can, we just have to want to.
Peace-bashing and the UK Press
In general, the press in the UK do not like leaders of domestic political parties who try to promote peace. Some of us remember the hatchet job they did on Michael Foot, possibly the most intelligent man to lead a major British political party in the last century. The press fell upon him like a pack of rabid dogs when he wore what was said to be a 'donkey jacket' to a Remembrance Day ceremony in 1981. In fact, it wasn't a donkey jacket at all. It was an overcoat from Harrods. The Queen Mother complimented him on it. The UK press, however, have seldom been known to let facts prevent them from inventing a scandal, particularly if it will help kill the career of a sane, caring, decent left-wing politician.
Now we have not only much of the press, but also many of his Labour Party colleagues, similarly attempting to destroy Jeremy Corbyn's political career. After another Remembrance Day ceremony, Corbyn was roundly abused in the press for not bowing at the Cenotaph. In fact, he did. What's more, after all the other politicians had gone off to a lavish lunch, he stayed on, chatting with veterans and taking photographs with and for them. The veterans appreciated this even if the press didn't. Most of the press preferred not to mention it at all, focusing instead on what they hoped would be a politically damaging lie.
As with Michael Foot, there have also been disparaging remarks about Corbyn's choice of clothing. As if it matters. As with Foot, people record every word Corbyn says and then freely misrepresent it in order to show him in the worst possible light. Why? Well, many Labour Party MPs enjoyed the privileges and benefits of power during the Blair years and sincerely believe that it is only by aping Thatcherite Conservative policies, as Blair did, that the Labour Party makes itself electable. They ignore the fact that Blair's decision to go along with the Bush-led invasion of Iraq made Britain a prime target for terrorist attacks. Blair's Thatcherite policies alienated so many traditional Labour voters that the party was virtually wiped off the political map of Scotland at the last election. The Blairites also choose to ignore the fact that Corbyn's election as party leader has led to a massive upsurge in party membership. His ideas particularly resonate with young people, many of whom have previously not engaged with politics, put off by the sneering self-interest of MPs of all major parties, drawn as they tend to be from a tiny, public school and Oxbridge educated elite.
Another factor behind the vitriol directed against both Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn is their active membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and their determination to promote alternatives to war as the primary means of settling international disputes. Accusations of pacifism have been levelled at both men as though it were a crime. Echoes of the white feathers and spitting in the street directed at conscientious objectors during both world wars.
Following one recent angry meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, an unnamed member of Corbyn's own shadow cabinet described him as “a fucking disgrace.” This childish abuse was prompted by a TV interview Corbyn gave to the BBC. A 30-second exchange was cherry-picked from this nearly 8-minute piece and repeatedly used to make it sound as though Corbyn would not allow the police to defend people who were being murdered by terrorists. What he actually said was that he was “not in favour of a general shoot-to-kill policy being adopted on the streets of the UK.” Given the number of innocent people who have been shot dead by armed police over the years, this seems a fair and reasonable statement to make. As Corbyn also says in the interview, it does not mean that, in a situation where lives are immediately threatened, as they were in Paris recently, all means should not be taken to prevent further loss of life.
In the interview, Corbyn makes the point that the best way to deal with terrorism in the long term is to create the kind of world in which people do not feel driven to resort to it. He also suggests that the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 made the situation in the Middle East worse, creating the circumstances in which Islamic fundamentalism could flourish and promote terrorism. The same point has been made in recent days by US President, Barack Obama, and by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, neither of whom have been pilloried for it in the UK press in the way that Corbyn is continually. Of course, it's much easier to condemn someone based on a single sentence taken out of context than it is to engage with the totality of their views. Unfortunately, more people hear the selected soundbite and the misleading spin put on it than will ever hear the original interview.
Here's the full Jeremy Corbyn interview so you can make up your own mind about what he said:
Again, as with Michael Foot in the early 80s, Corbyn is pilloried by some of his own MPs for opposing the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear missiles. The Labour Party manifesto for the 1983 general election included a call for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Right-wing Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, famously described it as “the longest suicide note in history.” The manifesto also called for greater public control over the banking sector, and for the nationalisation of banks who didn't agree to tighter controls over their behaviour. In light of the ongoing global financial crisis brought about by the banks, this may now be viewed as more rational than radical.
What was actually in the '83 Labour manifesto? A few highlights are mentioned in this short piece on the BBC website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8550425.stm
The cost of renewing the Trident system, which everyone agrees would never be used, has been put at a massive £97 billion. At a time when the UK government is planning cuts to social security, social services, support for the low paid, health care, home care for the elderly, local councils, social housing and education, I am staggered that anyone supports spending this amount of money on any weapons system, let alone one the use of which would signal the end of the world. No wonder the policy of mutually assured destruction has the acronym, MAD. Redirecting that money would mean that, far from cutting support for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, we could improve provision for them.
Who benefits from war?
In hindsight, the Conservative victory in '83 had less to do with Labour policies or Michael Foot's overcoat and much more to do with the jingoistic turn-around in Tory fortunes following the perceived victory in the 1982 Falklands war. Prior to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, Margaret Thatcher was the most unpopular Prime Minister the UK had ever had. Following it, she became the 'Iron Lady' and went from being a political liability for her party to an asset. Voters seem to love a good war, as long as it can be portrayed as successful.
It's surely no coincidence that it was later in 1983 that Ronald Reagan sent American troops to invade the small Caribbean island of Grenada. The US troops met little resistance and the 'war' was over in two days. 78 people died, 18 of whom were patients and staff in a mental hospital that the US forces bombed by accident. The US government awarded more than 5,000 medals for valour. What had worked for Thatcher worked for Reagan too. His domestic popularity soared.
These two short military interventions unfortunately led to a widespread belief amongst politicians that wars equal votes. It is debatable whether the US-led wars in the Middle East would have happened had it not been for the political gains resulting from the Falklands and Grenada conflicts. That and the prospect of cheaper oil, of course. And the vast war profits accruing to Haliburton, a company in which Bush and his chief advisers, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, all had substantial holdings.
Does war make us safer?
Jeremy Corbyn is also slated for being one of the few politicians to publicly admit that the mess in the Middle East, and the resulting terrorism, are at least partly the fault of US, UK and European policies in the region. These consist not just of the Gulf war and the Iraq war, but repeated more-or-less covert attempts to destabilise or overthrow regimes of which we did not approve, often, as with the US in Afghanistan, by arming, funding and training terrorist groups as proxies. This is a policy the West has pursued at least since WWI. While doing so, the West has imposed and then propped up some truly awful regimes, usually repressive dictatorships, as long as the dictators in question were willing to keep the oil flowing. Is it any wonder that many people in the region view the West with deep suspicion, contempt, even hatred? Is it acceptable to pillory people like Jeremy Corbyn for pointing out the consequences of our past mistakes and displaying a willingness not to repeat them and even, perhaps, to make amends for them and learn from them so as not to make those same mistakes again?
I was four when I realised that violence has vastly more negative results than positive. I'm still waiting and hoping for the rest of the world to grow up.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the question what would I do if I were attending a rock concert and four heavily armed suicide bombers started shooting everyone in sight? In lesser situations, I have placed myself between people threatening violence and those they were threatening. Would I do the same if the threat were from guns rather than fists? The honest answer is, I don't know. What I do know, and I wholeheartedly agree with Jeremy Corbyn on this, is that I would do all I could to prevent further killing. I also agree with him that we shouldn't have got ourselves into a place where events like those in Paris can happen, and that, now we're faced with it, there has to be a better way out of it than simply piling killing on top of killing. That way nothing but madness and destruction lie. Since increased antipathy and hostility are precisely what the clerics behind the self-proclaimed Islamic State want, should we really be delivering them to them? Are we not simply providing further justification for their rhetoric of hatred and violence?
I'm aware that I may come across as an apologist for Jeremy Corbyn in this piece and I accept that that will annoy and upset some people. I should point out that I am not a member of any political party and never have been. Mostly, I follow the anarchist precept, “don't vote – it only encourages them.” Like many thinking people of all ages, I have been turned off the political process by the abysmal behaviour of so many politicians. Since the 1970s, I have watched in disgust as more and more of the plentiful resources of my country have been taken away from the poor and given to the rich. At the same time, I have witnessed innumerable scandals about politicians lining their own pockets at public expense. It appals me to witness social care being cut while MPs use public money to have their moats cleaned, buy expensive second homes, or pay members of their family large salaries for doing nothing. I would rather not think of the people who run my country as a bunch of money-grubbing crooks, but when that's how they behave, it's hard not to.
And then there's Tony Blair, who had the opportunity to stop the invasion of Iraq before it began, but who had a nice chat with God, who told him it'd be fine and he should go ahead. Over two million people turning out on the streets of UK cities on a single day to march for peace did nothing to persuade him otherwise. Nor did the evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction. He decided it was better to lie to us all and go ahead anyway. Of course people are turned off politics in droves. Blair's catastrophic actions over the invasion of Iraq were, of course, what lay behind MPs refusal to back military intervention in Syria when it was last put to parliament. For a short time, it looked as though we might actually be learning from past mistakes. Now that majority against bombing Syria seems to be weakening.
That's why I think it's right to speak up for the occasional person within politics who seems to have genuine convictions, a genuine desire to do good, and a real desire to help all the people of this country, not just the wealthiest few. As a pacifist myself, the outraged responses to Corbyn's pacifist ideals depresses, but does not surprise me.
The question we all must ask ourselves is, have recent wars made the world a safer, better place? Surely the only rational answer can be that they have made the world a worse, less stable and more violent place, have fuelled hatred and increased terrorism. In which case, we need alternatives and we need them now. The alternative to war is peace, and isn't that what the sane among us all want, whether we're Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Jewish, Hindu, Shinto, Atheist or Jain?
As we say at the beginning of most public Druid ceremonies,
"May there be peace throughout all the world."
Blessings, and peace,