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