Sunday, 14 November 2010

A pacifist on Remembrance Sunday

Today is Remembrance Sunday, and I found myself watching on TV the service and march-past at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. It isn't something I normally do, so I responded in the moment to the events, without a sense of familiarity or expectation of what would come next (other than that provided by the BBC commentator).

As the parade continued, with organisation after organisation marching past, I had an overwhelming sense of the sheer scale of what was being represented there. All the serving military units; the young wounded and veterans of those units; the generations of those who died in military service; the welfare organisations that support injured fighters and their families; the widows and the children, and the organisations that support them; the political and religious figures - politicians who take the decisions to send people into war, and the religious bodies that send chaplains and others to minister to those serving; organisations that send entertainers out to the troops wherever they are . . . and so on. And included are some who were part of the war effort in other ways, such as the 'Bevin Boys', conscripted to work in the coal mines so as to keep the country going while others were fighting - only in recent years allowed to join the parade.

All this vast, complex, organised, thoughtful, intelligent, co-operative use of human and financial resources - all dedicated, in one way or another, to the prosecution of war.

And I recalled something I heard said, in passing, on the radio on Thursday, which was Remembrance Day itself: 'they don't do it for their country, they do it for their mates'. This is expressed often, in many different ways, for example:
Soldiers don't fight for their ideals, they don't fight for their country, they fight for their mates. The purpose of a lot of the training is, and has always been, to bond the unit into a family. You eat together, sleep together, party together and go through the same shit together. Your good days are their good days, your successes are theirs, your failures are shared, you overcome challenges together. The purpose of all this is so when they fly the group out and put them together in a warzone they'll kill to protect their friends, they'll fight to protect their friends and when it matters they just won't stop. I've always thought it's kind of ironic when two nations who both use this form of training fight. You get two groups of friends and tell each of them that the other wants to shoot their best mate.
(This particular version was posted on an online forum).

This kind of powerful bonding together for common purpose has been noticed in other arenas, and ways have been sought to replicate it. When Kurt Hahn founded Outward Bound, during World War 2, its original its purpose was to train young boys, who were going to serve in the Royal Navy, how to withstand the rigours they would encounter, so dramatically different from anything their lives had so far prepared them for.

After the war, Hahn sought to reproduce those positive elements, as he saw it, of military training and experience, for boys (inintially it was only boys) - part of a remedy, he felt, for a country suffering from a post-war 'lack of moral fibre'. Girls were first admitted to courses in 1951. The Outward Bound Trust continues to this day to offer such programmes, still for young people, but also including adult courses and corporate development training.

Hahn founded a whole range of organisations with similar aims, addressed to specific groups of people. In the UK he is probably best known in relation to Gordonstoun School, because a young Prince Charles was sent there for his schooling (and, reportedly, hated it!). Less well-known, perhaps, is Atlantic College and the subsequent network United World Colleges. Atlantic College was the first, and still offers international residential education for pupils aged 16+, leading to the International Baccalaureate. Included as a vital part of their curriculum are community service, and the kinds of outdoor challenges associated with the Outward Bound idea. Part of Hahn's philosophy was that young people develop when given real responsibility - and at Atlantic College, the pupils are trained to staff the lifeboat, the mountain rescue serviceand the cliff/sea rescue service. This is real responsibility and real potential danger - they are not just 'crew' - they also take command: each night, I was told, it is one of the pupils who goes to bed with the lifeboat key round his or her neck, in case of a call-out.

These are all examples of deliberately harnessing the elements of training, group bonding, service to others, real challenge, and real responsibility. But other circumstances create analogous conditions and produce similar outcomes in perhaps startlingly different situations. Think, for instance of the women who lived for years at the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp. Many, many women visited, and camped there for a few nights, or perhaps a few weeks. But there was a core who lived there permanently.

The presence of women living outside an operational nuclear base 24 hours a day, brought a new perspective to the peace movement - giving it leadership and a continuous focus. The commitment to non-violence and non-alignment gave the protest an authority that was difficult to dismiss – journalists from all over the world made their way to the camp to report on it. Living conditions were primitive - living outside in all kinds of weather, especially in the winter and rainy seasons, was testing. Without electricity, telephone, running water etc, and suffering frequent evictions and vigilante attacks, life was difficult. In spite of the conditions, women from many parts of the UK and abroad, spent time at the camp to be part of the resistance to nuclear weapons. It was a case of giving up comfort for commitment. The protest was committed to disrupting the exercises of the USAF. Nuclear convoys leaving the base to practice nuclear war, were blockaded, tracked to their practice area and disrupted. Taking non-violent direct action meant that women were arrested, taken to court and sent to prison.

Another example would be elements of the roads protest movement. The first of these that gained real public notice was the Newbury Bypass protest. Protestors camped at the site, dug tunnels and lived in them, climbed trees, made tree houses to live in, and harnessed themselves to them. As with the Greenham women, they suffered evictions, arrest and  imprisonment. The same kinds of solidarity and commitment were created by the combination of action, hardship, and group bonding for common purpose.

In many parts of the world there have been group actions to protect trees - examples include SAL, Chipko, and many smaller campaigns as loggers or other commercial interests threaten trees and hence whole ecosystems and people's livelihoods.

All of these examples share one thing - alongside the challenge or the danger, the group bonding in the face of hardship, the commitment to a cause . . . there is one further ingredient: an 'enemy'. In all these examples there was a commitment to nonviolence - but there was an enemy, an opposing force, a clear and identifiable organisation to fight against.

As we contemplate the wider environmental challenges faced by the whole of humanity, we are also faced with a human, social and psychological challenge. Can we generate this passion, solidarity and commitment to radical action out of positive motivation, rather than out of opposition to an enemy? How wide a net can we draw, to bring in many, many people to act to save the ecosystems that support us, and all of life? Can we find ways to address the challenges of peak oil and climate change so that we also start to forge new kinds of social action, working together 'for something' rather than 'against something' . . . but with equal passion, commitment and energy?

Our future may depend on it.
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1 comment:

  1. I asked the British Legion for a complete list of all the organisations entitled to take part in the parade at the Cenotaph. There are 221 of them - Blogger won't let me post the list as it's too many characters!