FOR MOST people in Britain war has little immediate reality. As the number of people with direct experience of it decreases, the meaning of war, and understanding of it, decreases too, until it becomes a matter of little concern.
Nevertheless, once a year we are asked to remember war. In the weeks before Remembrance Day, red poppies bloom on the lapels of public figures, few of whom seem to dare to appear without them. In the last few years a commemorative two minutes' silence has also been revived. Capitulating to political correctness, the BBC (after initial resistance) at the appointed time now bizarrely transmits white sound for two minutes on some of its channels.
The first Two Minutes' Silence, at 11 oclock on Armistice Day 1919, was a hastily arranged affair; but it was one which spoke to the needs of a population ravaged by a brutal war. Such was the feeling that buses, trains, traffic and factories stopped to observe it. As almost everyone in the country knew or had lost someone who had taken part in the war, they had much to think about. But whatever their private thoughts, the Silence was and continues to be defined by the language used to describe it.
From the first, in the Christian spirit of consolation and giving comfort to the bereaved, the slaughter was interpreted and publicly described as a sacrifice which implied that the war was purposeful. This also went down well with the restless, and in some cases rebellious, troops not yet demobilised. The problem was that signs of a valid purpose were impossible to find. No land fit for heroes was apparent; and by the mid 1930s even the war to end all war had become an untenable proposition. The idea of war as sacrifice became less an established fact and more a moral justification.
Over the years what became Remembrance Day, now conveniently moved to the nearest Sunday, has been shaped and reshaped by political and economic events. Today, Remembrance Day no longer carries the conviction that it should be a transforming experience, one that makes sense of all the suffering and which rededicates the nation to high aspiration. Instead, apart from its major function as a fund-raising event for the British Legion, it serves to legitimise war. Building on that theme of sacrifice noble and heroic the appalling suffering of the First World War and subsequent wars is used to justify inflicting such suffering in perpetuity. Peace, it is claimed, is an achievement of heroism and victory in war.
Shortly after the slaughter of the Second World War, the French writer Albert Camus posed what he called the great political question of our time. Do you or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to be killed or assaulted? Do you, or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to kill or assault? The answer has all kinds of implications. Camus believed that it is necessary to understand what fear means: Fear implies and rejects the same fact: a world where murder is legitimate, and where human life is considered trifling. As for his questions, he says, All who say No to both these questions are automatically committed to a series of consequences which must modify their way of posing problems.
As we pass through the International Year for the Culture of Peace and move into the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World, we would do well to do as Camus suggests and take a view on this question. We should begin to insist not on that impossible chimera the humanitarian war but on peace, a state which cannot encompass preparation for mass killing.
If at Remembrance time we are to reclaim value from those lost lives, rather than give legitimacy to a system of values which destroyed them, we dont need to be silent for two minutes. On the contrary: we need to speak up. We need to break up the silent conspiracy which perpetuates the delusion that war, and preparing for war, can bring about peace.
What they said in 1931