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WINTER 2015/16
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over the top

One day, while working in the archive of the Imperial War Museum in London, I opened a file and read about one man’s experience of the Battle of the Somme, in September 1916. The author was a young man, barely out of his teens. He recalled that he was steadying himself for going “over the top” when he spied an old school friend. “I looked at Herbert”, he recalled, adding
I could see his lips move – I shouted but I couldn’t hear myself at all. I wanted to tell him that we would keep together so I grabbed his hand and we went over [the top] together as we had gone to Sunday school, hand in hand.


100 years later, we, too, can play “Over the Top”. It is a first person shooter video game aimed at school children. It is described as an “interactive adventure game that allows you to experience life in the trenches during the First World War”. It promises players that they can “live through some of the excitement, despair, brutality, and sheer horror of trench warfare”. Note that excitement comes first: and they promise despair, brutality and horror, also – but not too much – because it is supposed to be fun. After all, they tell children and their parents, it is “part history” but also “part adventure game”.

Over the top

The producers promise that it has a high level of “replayability”. Players are required to “make a decision” and then
click on your choice and read the outcome of your decision. A poor decision might mean trouble or, worse, disaster. But don’t worry, you can always start over and try a new adventure…. So pick up your rifle, put on your helmet, and get ready for a truly unique experience!
Such fun: young people are encouraged to seek drama without tragedy; the virtualization of violence.

Of course, “war as pleasure” is not new. It is deeply embedded in everyday life. Contrary to the assumption that war is an event that peace activists must work to counter and outlaw, it is more realistic to think of war as a presence, deeply embedded in the games children play, the media we watch, the books we read, and the surveillance techniques that infect our lives.

Military practices, technologies, and symbols have invaded our everyday lives. We rarely even notice it. And, when we do, we don’t seem to care too much. Our garrisons are maintained throughout the globe yet the military campaigns we wage abroad seem as real to most of us as the metaphorical wars on drugs or obesity. It is not uncommon to hear people waxing lyrically about the sanctity of life – including that of the two-cell embryo – while cheering on the troops and proudly pinning red poppies to their clothing on Remembrance Day. The blurring of entertainment and war (“militainment”) and the advent of warbots – a generic term for drones, robotic weapons, unmanned vehicles, and suchlike – has led many of us to take for granted that war is without end and without borders. All of us have effectively been turned into citizen-soldiers. Actual combat is only the crude manifestation of omnipresent violence in our society.

One of the first steps, then, is to bring to public attention the ways in which war and military violence are embedded in our society. When I was writing Wounding the World, I was amazed by the number of times people assumed that a book about militarisation was a book about American, rather than British society. Although no one disputes that America has a serious problem with militarized violence, we also need to look closer to home. The eruptions of commemorations of the centenary of the First World War (including the computer games mentioned) were shocking in their return to a rhetoric more familiar to 1914 or 1939 than today. The “new militarism” of the post-9/11 world, involving the bellicosity of western nations in conflicts in the Middle East as well as the ubiquitous nature of the “war on terror”, has given a new life to the problemmatic rhetoric of “freedom” and “liberty”. The last time such concepts were banded about with gusto was during the war against Hitler and National Socialism. Courage, honour, and glory featured loudly. Millions of people solemnly recited the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, but it was hard to avoid hearing in the tremor of their voices, a vicarious thrill accompanying imaginings of “the horror, the horror”.

A deluge of history books, television and radio programmes, newspapers, and museums showcased grandfathers, grandmothers, great uncles and aunts, and other “ordinary people” who were physically or psychologically wounded during that war. We might be forgiven for not becoming aware of the role of British servicemen and women as inflictors of lethal violence.

One of the main things that we as people who are passionately against militarist excursions into our lives, and, even more, into the lives of our victims, is to provide alternatives and ways of resisting. In other words, what can be done?
The first step requires persuading people that it doesn’t have to be this way: we can decide not to remain helplessly enthralled to military ideologies, practices, and symbols. The military is not as powerful as it wants us to believe.
In other words, one of the most debilitating myths for people seeking to forge more peaceful worlds is the assertion that armed conflict is inevitable. But militarism serves instrumental purposes; it involves the investment of trillions of dollars, pounds, euros, rubles, or yuan. It is a social activity. As such, they can be unmade as well as made.

We have buried our heads in the sand and there is only one way out: to return to a politics that recognises that in wounding the world we wound ourselves and our loved ones. By passively accepting militarist encroachments, we also close down encounters with strangers we might have learnt from, laughed with, and loved.
In fact, the strategies open to us are legion. In the three-volume The Politics of Nonviolence Action (1973), Gene Sharp catalogues nearly 200 different ways people can engage in nonviolent protesting. Each of us possesses proclivities, skills, and spheres of influence that enable us to make a difference in our own local contexts. Wherever we are situated – as teachers, homemakers, academics, labourers, shopkeepers, secretaries, publishers, journalists, civil servants, entertainers, novelists, artists, lawyers, doctors, scientists, unemployed, and so on – we can make a difference globally. There is only one rule: a refusal to “outsource” political engagement.

I began this talk by conjuring up a young man, who held his school friend’s hand as they went over the top. One of them did not survive. I also started with a video game aimed at school children called “Over the Top” and promising children a good time in the trenches. Both that young soldier’s innocence and war gaming cynicism can be resisted.In contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase “There is no alternative”, we can make that act of faith in our future and that of our children.

Joanna Bourke
Over the top

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