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“Of War and Peace the Truth Just Twists…”

[Bob Dylan, from ‘The Gates of Eden,’ on Bringing it All Back Home (1965)]

Here we are then, 24 years into the 21st century and once again teetering on the brink of a Third World War. As a child during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the fear of nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union was so real that I took a spade from my father’s tool shed and dug a fall-out shelter in the sand dunes near my parents’ bungalow. I’m not sure why. There were concrete 'pillboxes' left over from the Second World War among the dunes that had walls three feet thick and would have provided more protection than a few feet of sand. I think I just wanted to feel like I was doing something rather than just sitting waiting for the world to end.

I have never been a big fan of war. Observing playground fights in my first year at my primary school showed me that the only thing fighting ever achieved was someone getting hurt, thus fuelling anger and a desire for revenge. Even at four years old, I realised that what applied to little children also applied to the bigger playground fights of grown-ups, the ones called wars. I therefore became a pacifist.

And yet, despite the overwhelming negativity of war, it is frequently lauded as a heroic enterprise to be applauded. I have never fathomed why we heap praise on those who kill others in wars. In peacetime, murder is seen as a bad thing. According to the Bible, the Christian God said we should not kill. Yet we pin medals on those who do and hold parades to honour them. This seemed like madness when I was four years old and it still does.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I did not want America to give in to the USSR, or vice versa. I just wanted both sides to grow up and behave decently and sensibly towards each other.

In my teens, the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia. I knew a Czech refugee, Piotr, who had left shortly before the tanks rolled in. He ended up in England, studying chemistry at the University of Sussex. He was warm, friendly, fiercely intelligent and funny. It seemed an obscenity that anyone should want to invade a country that had such people in it.

In 2022, refugees fled from Ukraine as Russian tanks rolled across its borders and bombs and cruise missiles struck military and civilian targets. The Ukrainian president called on every male between the ages of 18 and 60 to take up arms and fight the invaders. The people of Ukraine have tough choices to make, literal life and death choices. The Russian people and the soldiers in the invasion force also have choices to make. Do they want war? Why on earth would anyone in their right minds want war?

As a lifelong pacifist, I wonder what my response would be if it happened here in the UK. I like to think I would remain true to my principles, perhaps displaying the sort of courage of the young people who placed flowers in the rifle barrels of National Guardsmen in the USA in the 1960s or the young men in white shirts who stood in front of tanks as they rolled into Tienanmen Square in Beijing in the 1980s.

Western condemnations of Russian aggression would ring less hollow if the US and UK hadn’t led the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, lied through their teeth about the reasons for it, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens and destroyed the infrastructure of the country to such an extent that much of it is still not functioning more than two decades later. That invasion also created the Islamic State movement that has since destabilised countries in Asia and Africa and placed those in Europe and North America on perpetual terrorist alert. The law of unintended consequences and further proof that violence breeds violence.

Vladimir Putin justifies his invasion partly on the grounds that Ukraine has invested in a Westernised form of democracy that he feels threatened by. Since the First World War, successive US governments have undermined, destabilised and invaded countries in South America, Asia and Africa whenever they have looked like adopting anything resembling socialism. Is that any better?

Then, in October 2023, fanatical Hamas militants murdered nearly 1,200 unarmed men, women and children in Southern Israel, kidnapped 250 and raped, tortured and wounded many more. The Israeli government has responded by killing more than 30,000 unarmed Palestinian men, women and children in the Gaza Strip. How either of these actions is supposed to benefit anyone is beyond me. Again, I wonder what my response would be if it were my family being shot at, bombed, raped, tortured or kidnapped. That would be the ultimate test of my pacifist ideals. Many of those living in the Be’eri Kibbutz when it was attacked on October 7th were pacifists. I’m sure many of those subsequently killed in the Gaza Strip also held pacifist views. 12,000 of them were children. I’m sure the vast majority of people in both communities would rather live in peace with their neighbours than live with the perpetual threat of death. A substantial majority of people in the UK opposed the invasion of Iraq. It was our government, led by Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that pressed ahead with it. A substantial part of the Israeli population does not want war. Israel's right-wing government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is driving it forward.

Since invading the Gaza Strip, Israel is now also involved in conflict with its neighbours in Syria and with Iran. The Middle East is once again, as so often in the past, often as a direct result of Western interference, a powder keg that runs the risk of initiating a Third World War. My fervent hope is that, as happened after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the prospect of such a devastating global conflict will re-energise the global peace movement. In the early 1960s it took just just five years for it to grow from a few people marching against nuclear weapons to a global mass movement that came close to toppling governments around the world. Those governments responded to the threat of peace with violence. Our mistake was that some of us reacted to their violence with violence of our own. From that moment, the peace movement was doomed. In 1968, it was beaten into submission. Russia crushing the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia was paralleled by police and soldiers clubbing and shooting protestors in Paris, London, Tokyo, Chicago and many other cities worldwide. Up until then, it really looked and felt as though we might win. I still think we could have done had we continued to meet state violence with pacifist solidarity and courage. Doubtless many will feel I am a hopeless idealist. In fact, despite it all, I remain an idealist with hope.

I believe that if people remain free in their hearts and minds, nothing any external or internal force tries to impose upon them will have any long term effect. I wish them well. I fervently hope that world leaders finally come to agree upon with the majority of their people, learn the lesson I learnt in the school playground when I was four years old, that violence simply hurts people and breeds more violence, admit the futility of war and put an end to it. If the human race is to survive, prosper and live well, the cycle of violence must be broken. More violence is not the answer. Ultimately, the only rational response to violence is peace.

In the Spring that preceded 1967’s ‘Summer of Love,’ Martin Luther King wrote:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), page 67.

A year later, Dr. King was assassinated. His truth and his dream live on.

As we say at the beginning of many Druid ceremonies,
“May there be peace throughout all the world,”

Greywolf /|\

Published on Categories PacifismTags , ,
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About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

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