This November 11, let us not dishonour those who died
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Across Britain today at many sites commemorating the First World War and 100 years since that terrible slaughter began, there are seas of red poppies laid down as part of November 11 “Remembrance Day”
ceremonies and the dedication to “never forget.” Commenting on these displays (see picture), many people have spoken of their awesome grace, dignity and beauty – that they are almost “overwhelming”.
And yet, at the same time, there’s something very sad about this. The official state sanctioned commemoration of November 11 has gradually transformed from an honouring and recognition of those killed to a legitimisation of state sanctioned violence. While being touched by the ‘gracefulness’ of honouring and remembering we forget: these millions who died in World War 1 did so not for great causes, not in ‘defence’ of homes and freedoms otherwise ‘under attack’, but because of the ineptness, incompetence and, by and large, criminality of state and political ‘leaders’ who could use the resources of their countries not to generate well being and opportunities, invest in education, health, roads, and actually improving quality of life for citizens, but into war. Those who died where fathers, sons, brothers…as well as many civilians including people of all genders and ages. They died for a war that need not have been fought, for interests which were not theirs. And thus, sadly, the way in which most of us practice or reflect upon these seas of red poppies actually…does a disservice and dishonours the memory of millions of men as well as many women sent to slaughter and be slaughtered. It fails in our own moral and human duty to ask the question: why? Was it a ‘heroic’ sacrifice? In some cases actually yes – under savage, barbaric and horrifying circumstances, many, many human beings showed extraordinary camaraderie, humanity and courage – including those soldiers that famous Christmas who reached out across fighting lines and refused to fight with each other, sitting down instead to celebrate Christmas and play football together in the midst of a ‘war’; including those who had the courage to refuse to be ‘soldiers’ and refuse to kill and slaughter others and be conned into the criminal and brutal agendas of leaders who themselves – on all sides – should have been held accountable and tried for murder, war crimes and crimes against humanity, not celebrated and learned about later as ‘statesmen’ by future generations so removed from slaughter that we can find ‘war’ heroic and exciting and forget that seed of humanity within ourselves to actually empathise with and grasp its horrifying reality; and those who rose up…in Germany, in France, in Russia…against brutal states and ‘leaders’ sending them to kill and be killed, and who had the courage to say no. If you want to ‘honour’ those who died, go one step further, not by disgracing their memories with red poppies which treat war as a heroic act, but by remembering that those people who went to kill and be killed were human beings – sons, fathers, brothers by and large – who might have lived another day, who might have gone on to be poets, engineers, teachers, or simply woken one morning to feel the sun upon their skin, to fall in love, to cry, to do any of the thousand things that we do daily and take for granted…but which they can’t, because they were sent to war. We say that November 11 is so that we will ‘never forget’, and yet, almost by definition, how most of us commemorate and reflect upon November 11 is the act of forgetting. We “honour”, “remember” and “recognise the heroism” of those who died – making us think somehow that war is actually about honour and heroism. No, it’s not, no more than rape, domestic violence or murder are. War is simply that: institutionalised murder. It does not solve the conflicts from which it in part arises. It does not contribute to meeting the needs of all the parties and stakeholders involved. To study, learn about, honour, respect or celebrate war would be like celebrating, promoting and spreading the plague or ebola instead of studying medicine, wellbeing and health – for yes, by our complicity acceptance and unquestioning, we perpetuate and allow dangerous “leaders” and decision-makers to continue war-making and dropping missiles from drones rather than the difficult and challenging task of finding actual solutions to real issues and needs. In almost every book store in the UK, and to nearly the same degree in the US and Canada, ‘history’ sections are filled with books on war – 95% plus celebrating, glorifying, legitimising war and its ‘heroism’. Would you sit silently by or do the same if books did the same about rape and other forms of brutalisation? Would it not be so much greater of us, if instead of accepting false certainties such as ‘war is necessity’, ‘war is normal’, ‘it’s human nature to go to war’, ‘people have always fought and they always will’, we actually apply the extraordinary capability, creativity and intelligence of our species to find clear, concrete, practical and effective ways of addressing, transforming and dealing with conflicts without the use of violence? The fact that that concept seems so outrageous or in some cases ‘naive’ or ‘idealistic’ to people shows how little most people even know about, understand or have been exposed to peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Believing that war is inevitable and that to ‘conceive’ of (let alone do) peacebuilding and conflict transformation is idealistic is about as intellectually solid as to believe that ‘death’ is inevitable so to study and learn medicine would be idealistic. No. We study medicine not because we believe in ‘world health’ or that by studying medicine we’ll cure every human being or people will never fall sick again. We study medicine because we know, see, understand and are aware of the scale of the problem – and will do all we can to solve it, or at least work to improve health, well being, and ameliorate pain and suffering. Not believing that healing is valid only if there is ‘world health’, but recognising that if we can abolish a disease, or save one child from cancer, or assist in healthy birth, or any number of the millions of achievements that medicine has accomplished and accomplishes daily for the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world – it is part of what it is necessary for us to do. The same is true for peacebuilding, conflict transformation, violence prevention and post-war reconciliation and healing. We do not need to train soldiers. We do not need to simply commemorate and ‘honour’ soldiers as we so often do – forgetting also the many, many millions more who died as well. We need, today, to truly honour those men and women around the world….by abolishing war, by abolishing the incompetence, arrogance and bad decision-making which leads to and fuels war, and by training human beings – men, women, girls, boys, grandparents – in how to deal with conflicts effectively, constructively and by peaceful means. We need peace education in schools. We need peaceworkers professionally trained, equipped, and supported, not soldiers and trillion+ dollar investment in weapons most people cannot conceive of or comprehend. We need governments and non-state actors developing effective conflict and peace intelligence, early warning systems, joined-up approaches to addressing societal conflicts and addressing root causes, and transcending, overcoming demonisation, stereotypes, enemy images and hate-mongering, war-fuelling propaganda..that leads ordinary men and women to extremism and violence, whether in or out of uniform.
There are very, very many people, who on November 11, pay dignified, solemn respect to those who gave their lives, who took lives, who had their lives taken. There are those who commemorate and remember the many who died, the many who fought – sometimes spouses, sometimes parents, grandparents or great grandparents – and we reflect and think upon those through the last decades and beyond who have made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’. If this be your case, if you choose to respect, to honour, to remember and commemorate, then do so truly – not by dishonouring the memory of those who died by accepting the lies of those who sent them to be killed, but by stopping, reflecting, and asking yourself “where does our responsibility truly lie”. We live in a world today in which there is far, far too much violence. So much that it has become normal, that we have grown to accept it, to believe that it is ‘inevitable’ or the way things are – or the result of some of us being good, and some being evil. It is no more the ‘way things are’ than the earth is flat – another belief that went far too long without being challenged.
As long as we continue to accept media which demonises and distorts, showing others as “the enemy” who intrinsically hate us and want to carry out violence and atrocities; as long as we accept the use of trillions of dollars and the investment of our scientists, resources and capacity in development of weapons and instruments to kill; as long as we maintain university programmes called ‘security studies’, ‘political science’ and ‘international relations’ in which students/people are often unquestioningly taught not to question and to accept the ‘legitimacy’ or inevitability of war while never learning about peacebuilding and proven and effective policies, methods and approaches to deal with conflicts, in fact, instead often having these derided by professors themselves who have never studied, learned of or taken upon themselves the challenge and responsibility to understand them; as long as people like Blair, Bondevik, Bush, Obama, Mobutu Sese Seko, Kim Jong-Un, Omar al-Bashir, Bashar al-Assad, Cameron, Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are allowed to be ‘leaders’ and to promote and fuel demonisation, war and hatred of others and not be held accountable – legally accountable – for war crimes and crimes against humanity; as long as we do all of these things and more, then wearing and commemorating November 11 with red poppies is not honouring, commemorating, remembering or respecting those who died, it is actively condoning the decisions, decision-makers and systems which sent them to their deaths. Which killed them, and which continue to kill people today. This November 11, please, let us stop commemorating and passively accepting the systems, ideologies, leaders, decisions and glorification of war and violence – or the false belief and acceptance that they are necessary and inevitable – and take up the true responsibility that we all have: to honour those who have died, by refusing to allow any further to be killed; by refusing to accept so gullibly and unacceptably the myths and bad policies pushed upon us by small cohorts of ‘leaders’ engaging in militarism, war and aggression; by refusing to be complicit as tax dollars and human and societal resources are used for wars, rather than addressing and actually solving the factors which drive them. This November 11 let us finally recognise and understand that there will not be a ‘war to abolish all wars’. There simply needs to be the abolition of war. That, is how you truly show respect. That is how we commemorate, and ensure – never again.
[Note: I have spent much of the last 17+ years in war zones around the world. I have worked in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Colombia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Lebanon, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, Burma-Myanmar, southern Thailand and elsewhere. I have spent more time in war zones than the overwhelming majority of soldiers in the world today. I have had and seen friends and colleagues killed. I have had a gun in my mouth and held a 9-year old boy in my arms as he died. I write, not from naivete, idealism or ignorance of war, but from profound and deep dedication, experience and engagement with it – and with peacebuilding. To those who can conceive/utter/believe that to work to address war, to prevent violence, to engage in peacebuilding is naive or idealistic: it is not naive or idealistic to see that there are challenges in the world and to honestly engage to see how to address them, nor is it ‘realistic’ to unquestioningly accept the inevitability of what is obviously wrong. It is, however, realistic and responsible, to recognise that we must, as societies and as a species, find better, more effective ways of dealing with and addressing conflicts. There is a field that does that, and it needs to be studied, learned, developed and improved, just a we have done and continue to do with medicine. This is what needs your intelligence, your engagement, your mind, resources, capacities and effort. This is what we need to train men and women in around the world. This is not a ‘sacrifice’. It is, however, an ultimate responsibility.]