When is right wrong?


It’s always been quite easy to be a pacifist in New Zealand for the last fifty years. Vietnam seemed indefensible to many, and our nuclear free policy made it feasible to take the moral high ground and declare that war is wrong.

I was forced to think about this on reading of the First World War project at Paddington Station in London, where a magnificent and moving statue of an unknown warrior stands. In full battle kit and helmet, he is reading a letter. As part of the commemorations marking the start of World War One, writers have been invited to write a letter to him, and Stephen Fry, wit, comedian and actor was amongst the first to write his, and it caused a sensation.

He wrote it as from a pacifist brother. Though he got historic details wrong – a pacifist would not be sitting at home then, he’d either be in prison or working on a farm, his letter moved many people. I’ve always been firmly behind conscientious objectors – (I like the moral high ground!) but this letter made me think hard about what was the right thing to do then, and how the right thing could very easily seem to be the wrong thing.

I thought about the horrific killings at schools and other places in the last few years, where deranged gun-owners shot numbers of their fellows, and if they didn’t end up shooting themselves, were shot, in order to stop them killing any more innocent victims. These incidents made me think when is it wrong to kill another human being, if there is no other way to stop them killing others. As pacifists do we stand and watch while others are killed, or do we intervene in whatever way we can, to protect the innocent?

This was actually the dilemma in the World Wars. Revisionist historians have said that there was no need for Britain to go to war in 1914. But Britain had informally agreed to support France if she was attacked in order to keep the balance of peace and power in Europe. More importantly, she had signed a pact in 1839 with four other countries of Europe, including Germany, to protect Belgium and allow this war-torn corner of Europe to enjoy being a neutral country, safe for the first time in history from being fought over. It was known as the cock-pit of Europe. It took the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, nine years of diplomacy and negotiations to get the five signatories to agree to preserve Belgium, and they included France, Russia and England, and also Germany and Austria.

But Belgium was doomed as soon as the Prussian General Schlieffen began planning a war for German supremacy, because his plans for invading France, took in Belgium first. By then, under Bismarck’s influence, the German nation had become a military one. Invading Belgium didn’t bother them, though it did the honest German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, whose anguished telegrams begging the Kaiser not to invade, I have read.

In Belgium the Germans did what they did at Lidice in Hungary and Oradour in France in the Second World War, when they blamed the Nazis for these unspeakable atrocities. No Nazis around in the first war, but they still burned villages, hanged one man in ten and sometimes one man in two, and shot women, children and babies, the youngest three weeks old – at Dinant – as reprisals against any Belgians who had attempted to resist. Before the war was four weeks old, towns and villages had been sacked and burned, their people shot, and Louvain, and its ancient library reduced to cinders. So the choice for many Englishmen was clear – stand by and watch as a pacifist, or try to stop what seemed like a barbarian host?

The British soldiers who went to war then, were part of the history of England which had always tried to stop one power dominating and enslaving all of Europe, from Louis the Fourteenth of France to Napoleon. To go to war seemed to many who joined up then, to be a heroic attempt to save civilisation, and even more so in the Second World War, when Hitler was enslaving the civilised world.

The tragedy of resisting a violent and merciless enemy is that too often all the combatants find themselves using the same methods as the aggressor… war. But can we stand by and hang onto our principles of not killing, when all those we love will be destroyed, and not just those we love – our society, our country, and our whole civilisation. This was the choice which thinking people faced in both world wars.

When World War One was declared, England’s army was smaller than Serbia’s – the tiny country where the match had been lit at Sarajevo. So England’s armies were citizen armies, in both wars, made up of peace-loving men called up to defend their country. There’s a lot of research to show that many soldiers when they fired their rifles at the advancing enemy, didn’t actually shoot at the enemy, but aimed to miss, and that even more didn’t shoot at all. They too faced choices on the battle field which are impossible for us to imagine, when like me, we are living in a safe, peace-loving democracy.

So though I believe in peace, and have always supposed I was a pacifist, and attended Quaker meeting, where everyone was a declared pacifist, do I still believe it is possible to be one when the chips are down? I don’t know any more … Aggression turns easy choices upside down, when right – not killing – seems wrong, and wrong – fighting – seems right.

The wonderful story of the American colonel in Iraq, surrounded by an angry mob intent on violence, calling his armed troop to a halt, ordering them to kneel and point their guns to the sky, immediately defused the threat of violence on that occasion. So how do we defuse the violence of would- be psychopathic conquerors who believe that might is right? Maybe only people power can do that – and that can happen – as it did at the Berlin Wall.

Maybe it just needs enough of us to say: “They shall not pass…”
Food for threadbare gourmets

Something to eat with a glass of wine is one of our specialities in this village – among my friends anyway. It’s so easy to share a glass of wine and a nibble on a Friday night, without all the hassle of a dinner party. The latest craze is kumara skins – kumara are the Maori sweet potato that Kiwis pine for when they leave this country, but even ordinary potatoes are good this way.

Boil scrubbed orange and golden kumara until soft, and then cut them into thin wedges, leaving about a cm of flesh. Heat hot oil until it’s just smoking. Dust the kumara with seasoned flour and fry until golden. Drain and sprinkle with sea salt. Eat the skins with sour cream sauce – half a cup of sour cream mixed with a tbsp on mustard, fresh herbs and lemon juice.

Food for thought

There is something that can be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfilment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands.

Martin Buber 1878- 1965  Jewish philosopher



Filed under army, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, history, life and death, military history, peace, philosophy, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war one, world war two

48 responses to “When is right wrong?

  1. Juliet

    What a wonderfully thoughtful post, Valerie. You should have been a philosopher! Well, you are anyway.
    I never knew about Prince Lichnowsky, and his telegram. Nor did I know about soldiers firing to miss. What terrible positions people were put into.


  2. At heart, I think 99 out of 100 seek the way of peace, beware the one who doesn’t, they are a magnet for the few it’s true, but the few are usually those with the loudest voices and the better speeches. This is why the words of writers are so, so, important. Thank you for a thought provoking post.


  3. I need lots of kumara skins to help me on this post. It’s difficult. I doubt I could ever fight or go to war, so perhaps I should not expect anyone else to fight on my behalf. Yet there are times when fighting seems unavoidable.


  4. One of your best I think.
    One thought re: soldiers not shooting at the enemy. While true, the reason is more likely a reluctance to draw fire. If you shoot AT someone, and miss, that person will be sure to look for where the shot came from, and attempt to take the shooter out.


    • Hello Bruce, thank you so much – that is high praise from you…I’m sure you’re right on some occasions, about the not shooting, but I think in the heat and melee of a battle, there wouldn’t be time for those calculations would there? I remember listening to an old Norfolk countryman telling how he was sent to France, a boy fresh from the country, only having shot rabbits before. As he crouched in a hedgerow, a German soldier went running across the field in front of him, and he knew he had to shoot. He began reciting the Lord’s Prayer in his agony as he pulled the trigger. ..


  5. A wonderful and thought provoking piece Valerie. I, like you, believe myself to be a pacifist but I am also aware there I things I would probably fight for. I suppose each circumstance is different and if there was a peaceful option, I would like to think I would take it, but if there wasn’t … well until that happens I guess I don’t know for sure


    • Dory, thank you so much for your lovely words…yes, you’re right – until we stand in the shoes of those who had to make those choices, we can’t really tell what we would do, can we?


  6. Dear Valerie,

    Your vast knowledge of history never ceases to amaze and challenge me.

    The mental image of the killing of a 3 week old infant stops me in my tracks. One has to question the worth of war in the face of such atrocities.

    I was a teenager during the Vietnam. At the time it was considered cool to protest our involvement. In retrospect I had no real understanding.
    We did our servicemen a horrid disservice. Most of them were victims of the draft and didn’t want to be there, only to return home to ridicule and scorn. The lines between right and wrong were, and still are, clearly blurred.
    At any rate, I make it a point of thanking veterans for their service. It’s the very least I can do.

    I pray for peace and wonder with fear and trembling what the final answer will be.

    Shalom and Kia Ora,



    • Dear Rochelle, thank you for your thoughtful comments… I think you’re right, the returning soldiers do need support – so often they didn;’t have a choice about whether they fought or not, and even those who choose usually do so in the belief that they are serving their fellow countrymen.
      The choices are not easy are they?.Warm wishes, Valerie


  7. Being of French blood and family, I know of, first hand the atrocities committed during the two world wars. There are no easy, simple answers. No way of getting our head around things like French soldiers being sent into battle without bullets for their guns,for example, as happened to my father in law. The wounds of war carry on through the generations and no one ever seems to fully recover. It continues to boggle my mind that the allied forces came to a country many had never before seen to liberate a country – countries – that had suffered for so long under a terror we can truly only imagine. Shining through the history are moments of wondrous love and grace and it is always those that give me hope for our world. That even in the worst of times there are those of us who become our best selves.


    • What an amazing comment Joss, thank you so much… that’s a wonderful thought that the allies came to liberate countries they had never seen before – I’d never thought of it like that, but that’s what it was about, wasn’t it,. coming to rescue their fellowmen. and it is such a glorious truth that in such terrible times so many people act with unimaginable courage goodness and selflessness.


  8. A brilliant post Valerie and one that will leave many people thinking. I for one love peace and wish for it to be universal, but if I were called on to fight a host like the Germans in WW11 would not hesitate to go to the aid of an innocent country invaded by a power hungry horde.
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx


    • I so agree with you, David, and with you too in many ways, Valerie. I would hope and pray that all the world would be peaceful. But it will never happen due to human nature. There are wars that must be fought and the two World Wars were such wars. On a smaller level, not only have I never killed anyone, I pray I never will. But if someone were to try to kill me or my family, I would fight back with all I had.

      This is a conversation we need to (very carefully and civilly) keep having and as long as there are those of us willing to have it, all is not lost.



  9. I appreciate your thoughts and insights on these difficult lessons from history.


  10. A thought-provoking post Valerie. I’ve always been of the pacifist persuasion, but in some ways, I think that’s been easier for me in modern times because, I think it’s been more difficult to see valid reasons for the modern wars that have taken place than perhaps it was with the World Wars.


  11. Your post and the Jewish quotation at the end filled me with emotion. When I think about my dear Dad and the things he experienced in his childhood and then more violence in a war he joined to get away from the violence at home, I think your idea that people power must say ‘no more’ must apply to everything in our lives. Let kindness and peace prevail.


  12. Luanne

    The kumara sounds wonderful. I’ve only started to eat sweet potatoes. To me, they were the sweet potatoes of my American childhood–canned and baked with brown sugar and butter and marshmallows. Ugh. But now I’ve been baking them with slits in the top with olive oil and salt and finding out they are delicious just like that. And when I’m trying to (ahem) diet, they fill me up. As far as pacifism goes, I am so dismayed at humankind that I don’t believe in it any longer, but then it’s hard to believe in anything except honor. That’s one concept I will always believe in.


    • Well I’m obviously going to have to put in some lovely recipes for kumara aren’t I !
      I think your idea of honour is beautiful, it can be the touch-stone for so much of life, lovely to hear from you Luanne..


  13. Thank you Valerie for this thought provoking post. I can’t remember who said it but it was along the lines of ‘when there is peace in your heart there will be peace in the world’. Maybe it was Gandhi.
    The comments on this post are also thought provoking.
    Garden of Eden Blog


    • Thank you so much for your comment… yes, aren’t everyone’s comments so interesting, and the one which follows yours is just as thought-provoking… yes, peace has to start with us, and it means no judgement of anyone… even Putin or the Kardashians!


  14. As much as I also hate to say it (since I, too, am a pacifist), I do think there are times one has to fight back. Mandela being a fine example of someone who knows when to stand up, and when to stand down. Sometimes, the only language a bully understands is their own, so perhaps it is more about the motivation, than the act itself?


  15. Dear Alarna, what a fascinating comment… Mandela didn’t flinch when it came to meeting violence head-on, did he… which of course, in the end was what the two world wars were about…


  16. Well researched thought-provoking post, Valerie. Wars are all horrific. Being from France I’m unfortunately familar with the wars fought on its soil and abroad. Although I am a pacifist, I believe that unfortunately wars can be the only way to stop atrocities. In our modern world, I don’t think the “right” wars are fought, though.


    • Thank you Evelyne, the testimony of people who ‘ve lived through or are familiar with those dreadful times is always so valuable and thought-provoking. I totally agree with you that we’ve been fighting
      the wrong wars !


  17. You so very often push your readers to think. We ponder our philosophical and perhaps ethical standards to the more real world necessities. I am all to often asked the question, “what if you had a gun, what would you have done?”

    The reality is, I am morally and ethically a pacifist. I know in my heart I could not live with knowing I took a life to save my own. I also know though, I could live (not well and not without great healing) I would protect those I love, with all I have. I have faced these questions, soul deep and have answered them.

    There are times when wrong is right. There are times when each of us must face our demons, undoing our personal ethical stance for the greater good of others. WWI, WWII each of these were those times. Vietnam, it was not. I cannot in fact think of any war since the two great wars that would merit the investment in lives lost. But that is just me.


    • Dear Val,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment… I think you’re right about the world wars, and as you say Vietnam didn’t have their justification… or many of the wars fought since… they’re been about politics rather than saving civilisation and preserving liberty….I think most readers of this blog would agree with you, judgng by their comments…


  18. War brings great intellectual trauma to those who are deep thinkers. War is just as brutal, but more easily understandable, to pragmatic, hard hewn people. I think that is why farmers produce such effective, skilled soldiers.


  19. Oh Valerie! Every time I hear my son play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, I think of those young men and women who have faced the horror of war, the families torn apart by conflict, and the terrible choices that have had to be made. It is relatively easy to be a pacifist when we are at peace, but these are not the times when we face the ultimate test of compassion and endurance.

    “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers


    • Rebecca what a Wonderful quote… I’d just got back from seeing the amazing play The War Horse, using the incredible puppets – if you get the chance do see it, or the film of the play – not the Spielberg movie… it brings it all home so powerfully and poignantly… especially the things we love…


  20. Thought-provoking in the extreme. I wonder if those on the ‘right’ side had directed ALL efforts and resources into checkmating the kings rather than directing pawns against pawns, whether a better outcome would have been possible?


    • Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary went on making efforts for peace and to stop war until the very last moment. Unfortunately both Austria and Germany had set themselves onto the collision course, with Archduke Ferdinand’s death being their excuse for delivering the unanswerable ultimatums and the consequent dominoes falling.The Kaiser had been itching for war for years, and only realised the consequences far too late to stop it, when the troops had already been mobilised and the trains moving..


  21. It’s interesting what you say about the Quaker meeting. Time is covering over the fact that a substantial minority of fit male members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) chose to fight in the Second World War, believing the threat of Hitler was exceptional. In Britain at least conscientious objectors were better treated in that was than the previous one and being a Quaker would be recognised as strong evidence of a genuine conscientious objection.

    After the war, many of these Quakers reunited with those who had been conscientious objectors. In my first meeting among the old men was one with a background of active conscientious objection, one who was in the Friends’ Ambulance Service in North Africa and one who fought through North Africa and Italy. There was no rancour between them.

    As for the First World War, it’s worth remembering most military and political leaders believed it would be a short war, win or lose. Learned treatises had shown this must be so. When the war turned into a bloody stalemate, why was there no serious move for a negotiated peace? The scale of the losses already, perhaps, leading to the argument (on both sides) that the sacrifice of these men must not be wasted; fear of governments, especially the autocratic ones, that anything less than victory would lead to revolution; and the power of the nationalistic popular press, especially in the democracies, which persecuted anyone who got out of line.


  22. Simon, what a fascinating comment and what wonderful information about the differing views of Quakers. Quite unlike Bloomslbury pacifists like Ralph and Frances Partridge ( see her book A Pacifists War) who did nothing to help., and seemed to expect everyone else to do the protecting for them…


  23. I don’t believe in war. But then, where does one go from there? Is war never justified? I’m a Catholic, and Catholic theology believes in the “just war,” usually meaning a war of self-defense. Of course, people who want to go to war can usually find a way to describe almost anything as self-defense. My country, the United States, has twisted logic to justify war too many times during my lifetime.

    I’m not surprised that, as Simon says, “a substantial minority of fit male members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) chose to fight in the Second World War.” If one considered a war to be right and just, it would be hard to stand aside.

    You have asked a difficult question. I don’t know when wrong is right. Maybe we could go back to the Sermon on the Mount …”Blessed are the peacemakers,” and think about how we can sow peace in ordinary times.


  24. Pat

    Indeed, food for thought, Valerie.


  25. Thank you Pat… the question seems to get knottier, if I can mix metapors !


    • Pat

      I agree, Valerie. There are no easy answers. I always thought of myself leaning toward pacifism until I saw an old Frank Capra documentary he did on WWII in the ’40’s. One video clip was showing a Nazi soldier holding a crying baby while sliding a gas mask over its head. Broke me down — touched my heart — and could understand why the hate for Jews and Hitler had to be stopped.


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