ISSUE 45
SUMMER 2004
Peace Matters index
 

romancing the stones

 

   

 
 


ONLINE contents


- romancing the stones
- eulogy for our marlon brando
- loving slap
- memories of hebron
- heroic attitudes
- education for peace accross
   the curriculum

- trasncend and transform
- space ethics
- human rights map


The ubiquitous ‘cross of sacrifice’- does not encourage a renunciation of war


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‘I FEEL that I was deceived into voting for a war I was morally opposed to,’ writes Geraldine Smith MP, after the publication of the Butler Report. ‘I abhor the use of violence in all its forms. It runs contrary to my moral, intellectual and religious beliefs…’ What can one say? This could certainly provide an interesting discussion topic in Citizenship classes. Rather less astonishing is John Kampfner’s experience: ‘I have lost count of the Labour ministers and loyalist MPs who have said to me that they always had worries about Iraq’. The power of a Prime Minister’s patronage coupled with a lust to shin up the greasy pole quite possibly anaesthetised any ‘moral’ sensibilities that may lodge somewhere in MPs’ minds.

Of course MPs are not unique in this respect. Malleable morality is common to everyone and can be observed in everyday attitudes the world over. We all try to make the world work for us; and if it means changing our attitudes or accommodating our actions to support things we may not have ‘approved’ of, more often than not we will do just that. Some of us place limits on such adjustments, others appear not to, but even the most fundamentalist hardliners have to compromise. Hands up those who paid no taxes: tax-money which made the mess in Iraq possible, or will pay for the forthcoming development of nuclear weapons. Living in society inevitably makes us complicit in many of its values and actions. That being so, all the more reason to protest against – and work to change – the anti-human tendencies that surround us.

Marcel Ophuls’ documentary ‘ The Sorrow and the Pity’ (shown recently on BBC television) is a four and a half hour film about the Nazi occupation of France. Made in 1969, it proved too controversial to be shown on France’s government-controlled television at the time. It was finally released there in the late 80’s. Hitherto the Gaullist myth of heroic resistance prevailed: that the people of France, in a tight spot, had ultimately behaved well. Most people knew this was a lie; but perhaps not quite how big a lie. ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ describes, through interviews, four years of occupation in a town in central France, and lays bare the complex motives for its citizens’ wartime behaviour in a way that we rarely have the opportunity to examine. No ‘black and white’, ‘good and bad’ polarities here, and so no risk of too-easy judgements. 35 years later the film still has the power to shock. Collaboration or resistance are acts of individuals, but they arise in large part from a shared ideology. Vichy France despatched Jews to German prison camps sometimes with greater enthusiasm than their German occupiers did. Bulgaria, on the other hand, which had no history of anti-Semitism, was one of only two occupied countries whose Jewish population remained more or less intact throughout the war. It’s unlikely that Bulgarians were any more fundamentally ‘moral’ than the French, but their collective values were such that Bulgarian citizens, unlike their French counterparts, resisted the strong pressure from Germany to deport Jews.

Many of us emphasise an individual’s beliefs and commitment to a cause as an important element of social change. But perhaps we undervalue the power of other, more diffuse influences. These construct social values which are weaker but also more widespread. For example, we can currently observe both the use and the reinforcement of America’s militaristic values in the pursuit of votes: presidential candidate John Kerry now promotes himself as a Vietnam veteran (a war he also opposed), and is often pictured beside large military hardware and surrounded by US flags. (‘John is a fighter,’ said his wife from the speakers’ platform, ‘he won his medals the old-fashioned way.’ Deafening cheers.)

Larry Tritle is an academic and, like John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran. At a recent British Academy seminar on Cultures of Commemoration: War Memorials Ancient and Modern he spoke about the once-controversial memorial in Washington to the 58,000 Americans who died fighting the unpopular war in Vietnam. ‘The wall’, as it is popularly known, has now become the US National Park Service’s most-visited site. Tritle explored how this memorial reflects the values and collective memory of a society, and how such memories are constructed and reconstructed over time. He noted the memorial’s silence about the Other – the Vietnamese. Slipping from formal seminar presentation, Larry Tritle ended by telling us what he felt was missing from war memorials like these: an explanation of what war really means. It is this lack of explanation that enables John Kerry and George Bush to posture on battleships, and for Americans to be beguiled by such images.

Britain has fewer battleships (and politicians tend not to pose on them), but it has a surfeit of monuments that validate if not actually glorify war. There seems no end to the enthusiasm for adding to the number of war memorials in the UK. Groups of military and ex-military and their relatives continue to come forward to express their wish for one special to them. Though the numbers of people with direct personal links to soldiers killed in war is decreasing, the plea from the British Legion that we should ‘remember them’ grows louder, and the list of groups wanting to take part in the Remembrance Day parade grows longer. Meanwhile crowds cross the channel in search of some distant relative inscribed on a gravestone or a monument. This is called ‘education’ if it is a school trip. If not, it may be one of the battlefield tours organised by the British Legion or one of many tourist agencies. The Imperial War Museum, too, now provides special trips, led by academics and other experts, for the more discriminating traveller. Exploiting war – that is, the war dead - is now a major industry (though not yet as profitable as arms manufacture). Clearly it is not in the exploiters’ interest to portray the ‘glorious dead’ as victims of a brutal and uncaring system: that could lead to uncomfortable questions.

Those who not only object to war but also want an end to it have a lot of work ahead. Some will want to ‘convert’ people to non-violence, but perhaps most of us should focus our energies on challenging the war-condoning signs, symbols and entrenched mindset that permeate public life. Come Remembrance, a time of high cant and synthetic attitudes, we should all find a way to challenge that image of the ‘glorious dead’. It’s an appellation that is no use at all to the bones that lie in the fields of Belgium and France and in Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial grounds in 150 countries around the world. But it still serves some of the living: those who want to justify sending young men to kill and be killed for reasons few know or understand.

 
     

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