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“Hi, my name is Richard and I’m a pacifist. Hi, Richard! I’ve been off violence for eleven months and twenty days…”



It can be quite hard to admit that you’re a pacifist these days. Say the words out loud in polite company and you’re likely to be ridiculed or made to feel naïve and weak. At the very least, you’ll face a barrage of strident questions about Hitler, Rwanda, genocide, people coming into your house to murder your wife, and UN peacekeeping. It has taken me until quite recently to come out as a fully-fledged, paid-up pacifist. For several years, when I was an International Relations scholar, I kept quiet about my growing pacifist tendencies, only voicing doubts about the utility and morality of organized violence in the gentlest terms possible, and only on those rare occasions when I perceived a low risk of derision. In the silence of my office, I would think through all the intellectual and ethical arguments I wanted to make against militarism, war and violence, but then push them deep under the surface of my mind when I walked into a lecture or seminar. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I wanted to be taken seriously by my students and my peers, which meant never openly challenging what is now the most widely accepted commonsense about war.

I am a pacifist today in part because I’m a scholar. I have considered the arguments and evidence in support of militarism, just war, national defence and humanitarian intervention and found them wanting. Upon sustained analysis, it seems to me that all of the well-known arguments for organized violence soon crumble into dust. At the same time, the arguments and evidence in support of pacifism, nonviolence, and civilian defence seem to me to be both convincing and ethically consistent. On balance, therefore, I am convinced that pacifism is intellectually and ethically superior to militarism; at the very least, it is as defensible as the pro-violence viewpoint and thus ought to be the default attitude for clear-thinking, ethical people.

However, the most important reason I am a pacifist is because I am a human and I have come to understand at the deepest level that war and violence is fundamentally anti-human. I came to this understanding in many ways through a series of deeply affecting personal experiences when I was a young lad growing up in Africa – a series of encounters which lead to moments of profound emotional insight and moral recognition about the nature of war.



When I was twelve years old I had a slight, some might say fairly trifling, brush with the Zimbabwean war of independence. What I mean is, compared to most people who have experienced war directly my story would not even merit a passing mention. To me, however, the memory of this brief encounter with political violence continues to evoke a deep feeling of anxiety; I can still feel the same terror I felt all those years ago by the side of that dusty road in Africa.

It was 1979 and we lived in Zambia’s Southern Province, a few miles from the border with Rhodesia where a vicious war for independence had been under way for some years. Zambia officially supported the freedom fighters against the racist Smith regime, which meant that Rhodesian military forces would regularly conduct raids into Zambia, including an audacious assassination attempt on Joshua Nkomo, a prominent Zimbabwean rebel leader living in Lusaka. I can remember that a few days after the raid, my friends and I cycled across town to Nkomo’s house and collected spent bullet shells. The Rhodesian Air Force would also bomb guerilla training camps; some days, we’d hear the jets screaming overhead and the teachers would make us get under the desks. At first, it all seemed quite exciting to a young boy immersed in The Adventures of Tintin and The Great Escape. Later, of course, when friends of mine were injured by a land mine, and after I came face-to-face with the threat of being shot, it seemed a lot less like an adventure.

As a consequence of the Rhodesian raids, the Zambian army deployed and set up military check points on roads leading to the capital, Lusaka. The situation grew increasingly tense: the Zambian troops felt helpless in the face of constant Rhodesian attacks, and viewed Europeans living in Zambia with great suspicion. They believed that Europeans held secret sympathies for the white regime in Rhodesia, and might even be spying for them. Getting through the military checkpoints became a fraught and terrifying experience, especially at night when young conscript soldiers were prone to drunkenness, boredom and aggression. Rumours spread that people who could not produce their national identity cards would sometimes be taken into the bushes by the side of the road and summarily shot. I was particularly frightened because I was tall for my age, and the roadblock soldiers were perennially reluctant to believe that I was not sixteen, the age at which everyone was obliged to get a national identity card. They insisted that I should have an identity card and often became belligerent and threatening when I insisted that I was too young to have one.

One evening, my father and I were on a bus home when we stopped at one of the checkpoints. A blank-eyed soldier walked down the aisle, the barrel of his machine gun pushing into the faces of the passengers, demanding to inspect everyone’s ID. When I could not produce my identity card, he ordered me off the bus. My father pleaded with him that I was too young, but he ignored him like he didn’t even exist. He pulled me down the aisle, off the bus and onto the side of the road. He slapped the bus and told the bus driver to drive on. My father followed, pleading to let us back on the bus. It was to no avail; the soldier started marching me towards the nearby bushes. I genuinely thought I was about to be shot, like the others everyone had heard about. In that moment, the whole world disintegrated until all I knew was the most profound ontological terror. My body was stiff with fear, my breathing shallow. By the side of that dusty road, in the midst of a state of war, there was suddenly no law, no justice, no reason or dialogue, no mercy; only indifference and the threat of deadly violence.

This tiny little brush with war, a brush without even a single shot fired (I may not even have been in any real danger, it’s hard to know, and I had friends who had much more traumatic experiences than this), nevertheless revealed to me the way in which war strips away all assurance, destroys all rules; the way in which it reduces people to nothing more than bodies in fear, receptacles of terror. War, in other words, is the opposite of law, the opposite of moral and ethical certainty; it is the negation of the rules that make social life livable or even possible. War strips away all those inhibitions and structures which would make it impossible for a defenseless child to be shot at a road block by an angry soldier. War is the deliberate construction of an anti-society.

As it transpired, in fact, an officer appeared from somewhere and following a discussion with the young soldier in a language I did not understand, my father and I were allowed back onto the bus, which, against orders, had mercifully waited for us. I collapsed in relief into my seat, although it was a temporary respite because there several more roadblocks to negotiate before we reached home. I do not know what was said by the officer or why, but it seemed I had garnered a reprieve from whatever fate awaited me in the bushes. Although I escaped physically unharmed, I felt I knew what can happen in war.



Not many years later, John (not his real name), a graduate of the international school I attended, returned to Lusaka from service in the South African Defence Forces. He was treated like a returning hero at the school, feted by the great and the good; everyone wanted to be his friend. One day, while I was waiting to be picked up, John and I talked about his experiences since leaving school. We were the last people on the grounds; I remember how quiet it was, the wind whistling along the empty corridors. I was surprised when he started to speak very frankly, holding nothing back. It was as if he needed to unburden himself, although I couldn’t fathom why he chose me, a boy several years his junior, to tell his story to.

He began by explaining that he had wanted to join the South African army straight out of school because he really wanted to experience the adventure of war. He knew there was a war in South Africa, and he so much wanted to be a part of it. A few weeks after his basic training, he found himself deep in the Angolan bush, on guard duty. Two rebels, with explosives on their backs, ran out of the scrub towards the encampment. He shouted at them to stop but they kept coming. He opened fire and killed them both, saving the lives of many of his comrades. Within a few hours, despite the accolades of his superiors and fellow soldiers for his heroism, he felt physically sick and was confined to sick bay. For two weeks, he lay shivering in his cot, ill and unable to function. After he recovered, he marked his time and resigned from the army as soon as his contract allowed it. The adventure was well and truly over.

John cried as he told me his story. I was shocked to see a strong, strapping man like that cry in front of a junior like me. He seemed utterly broken, undone by his experiences. I will never forget seeing him trying bravely to smile through his tears as I walked away towards the car that had come to collect me. I never saw him again after that day, and I don’t know what became of him. Did he later commit suicide, as so many other former vets have done? Or did he find a way of dealing with his pain and go on to lead a normal life? I only know that in that moment I realised that war injures and disfigures everyone and everything it touches: the soldier pulling the trigger and the rebel who takes the bullet into their body; the living and the dead. The fact is that no words or legitimate justification can heal the wound of knowing or thinking you have taken the life of another human being, even when they are an enemy soldier trying to kill you. War, in other words, is the ultimate destroyer of souls, the ruin of human minds.



It was a hot day in 1983, the kind of day when sweat dries quickly and leaves a white salty crust on your face. Your cheeks ache from squinting against the relentless sun. I was trudging down the road on the dusty outskirts of one of the nondescript little towns that dot the South African high veld thinking about an ice-cold glass of water and where the best place might be to hitch a lift to Pretoria. Ahead of me, two young men came into view. They had blond buzz-cuts, jungle fatigues and sun-darkened faces and forearms. They were smoking, joking around, holding out their thumbs to occasional passing cars. I nodded as I walked up. They nodded back, momentarily subdued but not unfriendly. I stopped and put down my backpack with a groan of relief. In Africa, you never walk past a fellow traveler on a lonely road without taking the time to rest awhile and converse.

It turned out they were conscripts on leave from deployment somewhere in Angola. In South Africa’s desperation to hold back the spread of national liberation engulfing Southern Africa (Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe had all recently thrown off colonialism; the tide of liberation from white rule sweeping the region seemed to be inexorable), every young man had to spend two years in the military, often fighting with South Africa’s UNITA allies in Angola or searching for ANC infiltrators along thousands of miles of open border with Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. These guys were hitch-hiking home to Bloemfontein to spend a week with families, girlfriends, their community; and they were very glad of it, if their nervous, relieved joking about was anything to go by.

We all managed to catch a lift together and spent the next few hours talking. They spoke in heavily Boer-accented English which I frequently struggled to decipher. Most of all, I remember feeling sorry for them. They weren’t much older than me, and they were soldiers who’d been fighting in a brutal, vicious bush war. I could not imagine the terrors and hardships they must have endured, where snakes, scorpions, wild animals, and a thousand different diseases and infections were the very least of their worries. They seemed somewhat fragile, tightly held together.

Flash forward a few years, and I was talking to a young South African diplomat at an African studies conference in Melbourne, one of the few white South Africans in the newly liberated nation’s Foreign Service. As a young man he had fled to London to avoid going to prison for refusing to fight on behalf of the racist government. It was widely known that those who refused to do military service would be sentenced to harsh prison sentences where they would suffer serious physical and sexual abuse. It was apartheid society’s way of discouraging draft avoidance and war opposition, punishing disloyalty to the volk. Instead, he fought hard against the apartheid system with his fellow exiles in London, only returning when the ANC won the first free elections.

Over a beer at the end of a long day of conference panels, he told me about South Africa’s wars in Angola and other places, and about some of the men who fought them – men he personally knew. The conscripts were usually given a few weeks of basic training and then, if they were particularly unlucky, they were shipped to the Angolan bush to fight the Cuban-backed MPLA forces. He explained that one of his friends had done the six week course, been driven across Namibia to somewhere in Angola, and two days later, as the golden African sun sank into the horizon, his friend had joined in a football game his fellow soldiers were playing where the ‘ball’ they were kicking around was the head of an enemy soldier.

As I listened to stories like this (and others besides, such as how captured ANC infiltrators would sometimes be tied to the front of a jeep and then driven through a forest of African thorn bushes until they were nothing more than tattered shreds of flesh hanging off of shiny white bone), I wondered if those two young men I had met on that hot day in 1983 had witnessed or even committed similar acts, and what effect it had had on them. What were they doing now? What did they think about when they looked into the darkness at night, when they crept back down the road of memory? Did they imagine a scene of boys joyfully playing football in the setting African sun – not recoiling with horror, not tearing off their uniforms and running screaming towards home – but shouting and laughing with youthful enthusiasm: ‘Pass it here! Pass it here!’



These stories – these encounters in which I experienced a moral recognition – are not unusual in the long annuls of war. In fact, they are barely even noteworthy compared to what so many others have suffered. Since those days, I have heard far worse – utterly unspeakable, in fact – stories of the brutality and sheer depravity of war. I have learned that there is no bottom to the moral abyss humans can sink in situations of war, and that war disfigures all of its subjects. Collectively, all of this – my personal experiences, my study, the stories I have heard – convinces me that pacifism is the last remaining ethical position for a person of principle to take. War cannot be defended for the good it allegedly does; neither can it be redeemed or tamed. It is purely destructive of humanity. Clearly, any system which can transform boys into monsters, causing them to hack off the head of a fellow human being and kick it around in a sick parody of a football game, is inherently anti-human. This means that war in any form should never be tolerated; and neutrality is not an option, as it functions as a form of consent. Instead, war must be condemned, opposed, resisted, and deconstructed from our common life, lest we suffer its cruelty and injury evermore. This is the only moral course of action left. Perhaps most importantly, there exist numerous viable and ethical nonviolent alternatives to war. This is why I am a pacifist.

The real meaning of Christmas is family and friends. It’s a time to re-forge the bonds between you and your special group – your family and friends, not others. Forget about the stranger, the lonely, the foreigner, the mentally distressed; keep them separate from your festivities. Don’t invite them into your homes; it’s just embarrassing. This celebration is not for them. You can be sure that they will have their own friends and family, their own ways and celebrations. Christmas is the time for giving your love solely to your own people, your own group.

The real meaning of Christmas is presents – those you give and those you get. If you really love your friends and family, you will buy them the most impressive and costly gifts, even if you have to temporarily go into debt to do it. Conversely, if someone doesn’t get you an expensive gift, you can be sure they do not love you that much. And you should never settle; that’s the wrong life lesson. Demand the gifts you really want and deserve. If you haven’t spent all your money and time on presents for those you love, your love is inadequate. And if you don’t get a massive pile of presents you really want on Christmas Day, it’s clear your family and friends don’t really love you. You should feel diminished as a person; others are getting more then you.

The real meaning of Christmas is conspicuous consumption. It is a time for eating more food in a single day than most people in the world get to eat in a week. And you should drink copiously; that’s the true Christmas spirit. The measure of your Christmas is how bloated and drunk and sick you feel by the end of it: if you don’t feel a bit nauseous with how much you’ve eated and drank, you’ve missed the real point of the festivities. Another important measure of Christmas lies in how much food you throw away at the end. There should be a large pile to throw in the garbage.

I know this is how it’s supposed to be, but the truth is that the best Christmas’s I remember were when my parents would take us kids down to the homeless shelter or sometimes the old folk’s home, and we’d spend Christmas Day helping to decorate, set the tables, cook, serve, talk to people, do dishes and clear up afterwards. My Dad would bring his cornet and lead some carol singing. Late in the afternoon, after the work was done, we would go home and that evening we would have a family meal together and reflect on how lucky we were compared to some of those we had met that day. At the time, as a teenager, I sometimes resented the fact that other people would be having a great time with their family while I had to work at thankless chores. But now I realise that they were the best, the most meaningful Christmas’s I ever had. I hardly remember at all those normal Christmas Days where we didn’t go out and help others; they all merge into one.

That’s all I wanted to say about it. Have a great Christmas 2012, everyone. Love, peace and justice to you all.

The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with great military might. (Psalm 29: 11)

Turn from evil and do good; seek security and pursue it with swords and chariots. (Psalm 34: 14)

He will judge between the nations in battle and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into rifles and their spears into bayonets. Nation will take up sword against nation, and they will train for war and military intervention. (Isaiah 2: 4)

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Master of Righteous War. (Isaiah 9: 6)

Blessed are the warriors of the nation: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matt. 5: 9)

But hate your enemies, smite them with your armies, and show no mercy lest it be seen as weakness. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He will be your strength against the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6: 35)

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, pursue your enemies with an army and smite those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and rains vengeance on the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, you will be rewarded. Follow the way of all men and fight against those who would harm your children or your neighbor (Matt, 5: 43-48)

Then said Jesus unto Peter, Unsheathe thy sword and gather together strong men to fight the evil invader. And I will call down death from the skies for the enemies of my people. (John 18: 11)

But I tell you, Resist the evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn on him with vengeance and strike him down without mercy. (Matt. 5: 39)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have national security from evildoers. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have given you the instruments of destruction for the protection of your own. (John 16: 33)

Repay evil for evil, and give thought to do what is rightful for the protection of thy own people. (Rom. 12:17)

And a harvest of righteousness is sown by those who make war for the good of their fellow citizens. (James 3: 18)

If Israel’s war on Gaza was a rugby match, it would be like the All Blacks playing a small provincial team from one of the poorer Pacific Islands – after kidnapping them, rendering them to New Zealand, and forcing them to play at gunpoint. This small, amateur provincial team would have had no equipment or fields to train on for the past few years, the players would be malnourished, and they would have no coaches, no reserves, no uniforms, and no team doctor. During the enforced game, the All Blacks would be allowed sixteen players, while the provincial team would be allowed five. The referee and linesmen would all be former All Black coaches, and the match would be played in Auckland: while there would be a small number of Pacific supporters in the crowd, most of the people watching would be cheering on the All Blacks. The referee would allow the All Blacks to spear tackle the opposition players and ruck them viciously when they were on the ground; and the all-too frequent punches thrown by All Black players would be overlooked. However, if one of the unfortunate provincial Islander players objected to the brutality and punched an All Black in retaliation, all sixteen All Blacks would wade in and beat the provincial players to a bloody pulp. The referee would then send off the provincial player who threw the first punch. The All Black supporters would cheer the match despite its gross unevenness, and would happily assert that its one-sided outcome was an important victory nonetheless. The other test-playing nations would applaud the All Black’s victory and defend the right of their players to fight back against uncivilized players from a lesser nation. The nation’s sports writers would also focus their analysis on the ill-disciplined behavior of the opposition, highlighting their propensity to hit out when roughed up a little, and calling on the IRB to ban them all from competitive rugby for life.

Of course, the war in Gaza is much more uneven than this absurd scenario. Israel is a nuclear armed state, and has one of the most powerful military machines in the world; it has a military advantage over Gaza that’s probably more like several hundred to one. The Israeli air force has complete air superiority and can bomb anywhere in Gaza, at any time, and as many times as they like – all with powerful laser-guided bombs of immense destructive power. They could in fact, drop a nuclear bomb on them if they wanted to (this is how secure Israel is in contrast to Gaza). They also have a massive, highly trained and well equipped military force kitted out with every bit of modern weaponry. And they surround Gaza on all sides, able to attack from all directions at once. In addition, they have had the tiny enclave of Gaza under blockade for years in order to prevent any major importation of weapons, and have a state-of-the-art missile defence system. Externally, Israel is backed by the United States, the most powerful military in the world, a nation which provides them with billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and economic assistance every year. Partly as a consequence, most states in Europe and the world tacitly and openly support Israel’s actions against Gaza. Israel also has a global network of publicists and media officers to influence public opinion and shape global coverage of the conflict. Perhaps most importantly, previous wars have shown that Israel can smash and pulverize the tiny, impoverished territory of Gaza without any serious political or economic consequences; they can get away with any amount of disproportionate violence against the Palestinians.

In contrast, facing one of the most powerful militaries in the world, a few thousand Gaza militants have some assault rifles, some hand-guns, some improvised explosive devices, and thousands of homemade rockets without any guidance systems. They have no air force, no navy, no anti-aircraft systems, no artillery, no tanks or mechanized armor, and probably not even an effective military communication system. They are trapped in a densely populated piece of land, surrounded on all sides, unable to conduct training exercises and under constant surveillance from drones and satellites. They have a comparatively weak media network, few powerful allies, and little real sympathy from Western governments. No one calls for the Responsibility to Protect or intervention by NATO when Israeli forces start to kill Palestinian civilians, or when Palestinians are not even allowed to flee the besieged enclave from the fighting but are turned back at the border.

If this asymmetry was not enough, Gaza, along with the rest of Palestine, has endured a highly restrictive boycott and blockade for years which has sapped the economic base and morale of the population. They have watched the continual building of settlements and land encroachment on their territories, and endured a set of laws and security procedures that international jurists have said amounts to an apartheid system (see my earlier blog on ‘If Wales was the West Bank’). More importantly, they have watched while the ‘peace process’ fails to deliver even the tiniest positive benefit year after year, all while settlements on Palestinian land continue to expand. Far from a ‘war’ between two relatively equal forces then, this is in fact, a smashing, a crushing, a mighty pulverizing of one of the tiniest nations in the world by one of the strongest. But then again, it’s always been this way in Palestine, boys with slingshots firing their stones at tanks and helicopters, or homemade rockets fired off against guided missiles, bombers and drones. The Palestinians are fighting a behemoth, a giant military and political machine which has sucked out all light and hope for a Palestinian future, but which continues to insist that it is the one under attack, it is the victim of these poorest of the poor.

In this situation of extreme asymmetry, there is a compelling moral argument that the one with the preponderance of power, the one who holds virtually all the cards and who can most afford to take a risk because they have the means to defend themselves and to re-engage in devastating attack any time they like, carries the greatest responsibility to break the cycle of violence. Israel has the real power to end this conflict, to take a small risk and attempt diplomacy and dialogue rather than persisting with military force. Not only that, it’s directly in their interests to do so; in reality, they cannot hope to stop Palestinian militant attacks by might alone, no matter how many bombs they drop. Otherwise, in a few years’ time, when there’s another forthcoming election or a newly inaugurated American president, we’ll all be watching Israel trying to smash Gaza all over again.

I can barely bring myself to check the internet or watch the news because it’s so painful to watch this utterly pointless war, to see the inhumanity of it, its loud, dazzling suffering broadcast to the whole world. In this particular bout of strategy-less, tit-for-tat blood-letting, it is small children, their pale, quiet corpses filled with hot shards of metal, that have come to symbolize the inherent inhumanity of war and the madness of believing that security comes from superior killing power. Everyone watching knows that neither side is going to win this nasty little war; instead, both sides will eventually claim victory, bury their dead and then begin preparation for the next inevitable killing spree. This makes it strategically purposeless violence, almost entirely devoid of rational calculation or historical understanding. It’s a war waged in no one’s name (despite what politicians claim) and it will benefit no civilians in either territory. Only the shareholders of arms producing companies will directly profit from this orgy of mutual terror.

The Israelis have never won any real or long-lasting security through military operations like this, only world-wide vilification and a new generation of Palestinian militants seeking revenge. They are attacking Gaza today because the attack on Gaza four years ago was a total failure and patently counter-productive: it strengthened Hamas’s position in Gaza, hurt Israel’s reputation and led to Palestinian re-armament and a new determination to fight back. That was a war without purpose, as this one is. The real tragedy is that not one single lesson was learned and the same mistake is now being repeated. Either that or it is an exercise in sheer cynicism by Israel’s leaders, and the real point of killing Palestinians is to convince Israeli voters, punish the Palestinian population for its obstinacy, and/or test a new American president.

Hamas militants have likewise never won any concessions from Israel or advanced their cause through the firing of rockets into Israel; they’ve only ever garnered moral condemnation for their lack of concern for Israeli civilian casualties and provoked ever greater levels of bloody revenge from the vastly superior Israeli military machine. The leaders of both sides, it seems, exist in a moral void where they do not care how many people they kill, how many of their own people they sacrifice or what suffering they create, only that they’re seen to flex their military strength. In this respect, this war is a form of politician-led ritualized violence without strategy or rational purpose, and it will only result in suffering and further insecurity for both sides. They might as well shoot themselves for all the effect it will have. From this perspective, it’s a perfect demonstration that the spirit of World War I which we so recently remembered on Armistice Day lives on. Then, as now, we are at the mercy of vainglorious, warmongering, stupid politicians who are perfectly willing to sacrifice the lives of others for the sake of facile gestures.

Watching what’s happening, seeing this madness, I know I have to write something about it. In part, it’s because of the images I’ve seen from this war already: the small bodies of babies pulled from the rubble, the faces of ordinary people contorted in terror, the grief of a father holding his murdered child. You can’t see such things and keep your emotions locked up inside; you’ve got to let the grief out somehow lest it poison you from within. I know there are many other similar conflicts I could write about today: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Kashmir, Tibet, West Papua. There are children dying there too, and in many cases, brutality on an even greater scale.

But this war seems to pull me in somehow; its visceral images seem to demand a response from me. Maybe it’s also because this situation is connected to me in ways that some of these other conflicts are not. After all, Israeli products are on the shelves of many stores in Western countries; the European Union gives Israel preferential terms of trade. I’ve probably bought things in the last year that were made in Israel, or maybe even grown on the West Bank by illegal settlers. In this respect, I am there, in the middle of that fight. Israel also wants to be a Western democracy and its most powerful ally and supporter is the United States, the most important ally of my own country. My national media most often treats Israel as one of ‘us’, a modern, civilized democracy. But it forgets that Israel and New Zealand are both settler colonies struggling to overcome a legacy of invasion, land appropriation and mistreatment of the indigenous people of the land. Despite this history, my government has been more inclined to offer words of support for Israel than to stand up for the rights of Palestinians.

However, these reasons are not that important compared to the fact that I personally know people from Gaza and Israel. I know people in Israel who are suffering tremendous anxiety at this very moment, fearing the roar of rockets about to fall on them or someone they know, and worried about whether the conflict will escalate and lead to a wider war which will result in a general call-up of reservists and put the whole country on a war-footing. I also know that they will be concerned about what this state-sanctioned violence is doing to their own country, to their politics and collective sense of morality and justice. They’ll be wondering what this will mean for the upcoming elections, whether it will play into the hands of the extremist groups who will insist on making things worse for Palestinians, thereby prolonging the conflict and insecurity which they have endured for so long.

I also know people in Gaza, huddling as I write, listening to Israeli planes overhead and then bracing for the next bomb, wondering if their house will be next to be smashed to smithereens. Their sense of vulnerability, impotent rage and helplessness will be suffocating them. They will see the broken bodies of their friends and neighbors and it will traumatize them for years to come, maybe even radicalize them. I remember a former student from Gaza, a young woman who was a member of Hamas but who had come to study conflict resolution with me so that she could try and persuade the Hamas leadership to switch tactics to nonviolent resistance instead. I wonder if she’s been targeted by Israel because she’s a member of what they call a terrorist group, and they don’t care that she’s a nonviolent activist trying to bring about the end of violent resistance. I wonder if years of bombardment and violent attack by Israel have changed her mind and transformed her ideals into militancy.

But what to write in a situation like this? What could I possibly say that would make any difference? Is there any point in giving another potted history of the conflict, a genealogy of how the two parties got to this point? I doubt it; everyone knows what the facts are, even if they have their own interpretation of what it means. Would it help to point out that violence hasn’t worked for either side, that violence has been tried for more than fifty years without any positive benefit, and that alternatives to violence exist if leaders are courageous enough to take a small risk? Would it make me an anti-Semite if I pointed out that trapping so many people in a tiny enclave and then subjecting them to a crushing blockade, assassinating their elected leaders, and refusing to negotiate on the future is likely to lead to the kind of rage and despair that then results in a barrage of rockets, that crushing people for so long and in so many ways leads more often to violent resistance than surrender? On the other hand, would it make me a privileged liberal to suggest that the Palestinians just accept all that oppression and violence and not try and fight back violently, but respond instead with nonviolence and moral force? Or would it just make me naïve to think that nonviolent resistance might have slowed the take-over of Palestinian land more than violent resistance has?

As I watch what’s happening, I feel quite helpless. I feel that I don’t really know anything, and I can’t really say anything without sounding ignorant or arrogant. I am just a human being watching the suffering of others from a great distance. I know it’s selfish and I have no right, but I just wish they’d stop so we don’t have to see any more bodies of little children, any more grieving parents, terrified residents. And I know they could stop if they wanted to, if they had an ounce of humanity, because killing is a choice not a destiny. Especially war; war doesn’t just happen; it’s a decision made by leaders. To end a war like this one just takes a little moral courage from leaders, and from the people who voted for them. It entails a modicum of willingness to admit that violence has failed and that dialogue and peaceful methods ought to be given an equal chance of succeeding. It begins with the recognition that your enemy is a person who suffers too.

I don’t know why I did it. Deep inside I knew it would be painful and upsetting, but I went along anyway. I guess I had hoped that Remembrance Day events in New Zealand would be a little less militaristic, less overlaid with imperial and patriotic sentiment, than the ones I had attended during my years in the UK. I guess I’d hoped that in the time I’d been away, Remembrance Day services here would have evolved and changed, perhaps into more inclusive, more truthful and pacific ways of remembering and honouring the war dead.

As I walked down Dowling Street to go to the Armistice Day service, I went past a large yellow building which still bore its original name, The Imperial Buildings, across its impressive frontage. The Imperial Buildings look out over Queens Garden, the site where all remembrance ceremonies in Dunedin are held. At the centre of the gardens is a towering marble Cenotaph. It was originally designed to reflect ‘great sacrifices’ and ‘mighty deeds’, and its inscription reads, ‘The Glorious Dead 1914-1918’ and ‘The Glorious Dead 1939-1945’. Facing the Cenotaph is a huge statue of Queen Victoria, after whom the gardens are named. She is flanked by two female figures, one of which holds aloft a broad sword. I presume it’s for smiting the enemies of the British Empire, which undoubtedly would have included the Maori people who once had settlements all around this harbor – and any other people who refused to be taxed or forced into laboring for the colonial economy. It’s noticeable that the local tangata te whenua (the people of the land), have no formal presence at this service. I can’t help but wonder if this is because remembering all who served in the military would involve remembering the British Army laying waste to Maori villages during the land wars, the slaughter of pacification. That’s one form of remembering, one truth about our military war involvement, that probably sits a little too uncomfortably in a service of remembrance. Either way, the shadow of empire hangs silently over everything we do this morning.

There are about 200 of us in a half circle around the Cenotaph, which faces Queen Victoria, who in turn is imperiously looking away over what was then part of her domain. There are quite a few members of the armed forces among the gathering, and lots of people are wearing red poppies and the war medals of relatives. I’m the only one wearing a white poppy. I feel conspicuous and defensive, although no one makes a comment or gives me a hostile look. No one seems to notice me at all.

The service is officiated by a senior padre from the military, the perfect symbol of how the church serves the state and sanctifies its wars. In Britain, I heard stories of padres blessing fighter jets on their way to bomb Muslim towns and villages. I wonder if New Zealand chaplains similarly pray for victory against enemy forces. We begin by singing ‘God Save the Queen’, which seems old fashioned, but nonetheless reinforces for me how much these kind of ceremonies function as rites of nationalism rooted in a history of empire. Asking God to save our gracious Queen, send her victorious, and long to reign over us reignites the imperial past which is all around this place, a past which continues to haunt an ex-settler colony like New Zealand. Interestingly, the service ends by singing ‘God Defend New Zealand’ which suggests to me that Queen and empire come first; the New Zealand nation is just one part of the imperial family we are here to commemorate. It also reminds us that in matters of war, it is always best to have God on your side.

The impression that this is a celebration of hard-earned, war-forged nationhood is reaffirmed when the first prayers are for the Queen, the Governor-General and the Prime Minister. In my mind, I subvert the padre’s prayer by asking God that they will one day use their voices to speak out against the sheer stupidity and inhumanity of war and call for global disarmament and nonviolent solutions to conflict, and that they will show a powerful example by encouraging their children to work for peacemaker groups rather than the armed forces. I pray that our prime minister will stand before the world and reiterate New Zealand’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and making the Pacific nuclear free.

The service is punctuated by the firing of a massive cannon. I am not expecting it to be quite so loud, and I can’t suppress a jump. Car alarms all around the square go off with the force of the sound wave; a young child screams with terror; my ears ring. People in the crowd murmur and shuffle at the sudden noise, but then there are relieved smiles and more than a few looks of admiration at the cannon. I have never heard of using loud bangs and noise to remember something sad and tragic. Tragedies are usually remembered with quiet bells, soft songs, or even silence. So I suppose this monstrous firecracker celebrates victory, and the ‘glorious dead’; but I could be wrong about that. In any case, it reminds me of how terrifying it must be to be on the receiving end of cannon fire, to see people’s limbs torn off and flying through the air. I wonder at how people can systematically build thousands upon thousands of such inhuman weapons, and more besides.

A few minutes later, a spitfire buzzes around the gathering. Again, I’m disturbed at how happy everyone is to see it, how it lightens the mood of the crowd instantly. I reflect on how overt demonstrations of military machines have become normalised at these kinds of events. Why not go all the way and parade our best missiles or maybe a line of tanks, I wonder. Someone ought to at least give a demonstration of how a flame thrower can light a man up like a huge human candle, turning him into a piece of charcoal in less than a minute.

The homily is given by an officer, his chest full of medals. He speaks about how many lives New Zealand sacrificed in the Great War. He says it was meant to be the ‘war to end all wars’, and how he was never really told at school why so many had to die. He doesn’t really tell us either; there’s no mention of empire, and fighting for the Crown’s overseas possessions, or how millions were needlessly slaughtered by incompetence and vanity. There’s no mention of how the original war remembrance services were organized around the theme, ‘never again’, and how women started the Peace Pledge Union to try and ensure their menfolk never had to suffer such horror again. I’m left saddened by the lost opportunity to speak some truth about the evil of war and the necessity of working against its ever happening again.

After this, there’s the mandatory prayer for the service men and women overseas, the playing of the Last Post and the laying of the wreaths. Then we sing the national anthem and people start for the cathedral and the Memorial Day service. I feel sad and a little distressed. I cannot put into words why yet. I’m not sure how I will get through another service, how I will feel at the end of it.

The cathedral service beings with each branch of the military presenting its Colours (service flags) to the presiding priest, who stands them up by the altar, in front of the large cross, like gifts to Christ himself. I am stunned and dismayed to see that the navy and army Colours are brought to the front of the church by servicemen carrying automatic rifles which appear to have full magazines and their bayonets fixed. The sergeant carries a sword and they march in perfect unison. The air force only has one man with a flag, but the top of the flag pole is a metal spear head. I suppose it represents a lance, which in times past was used for impaling enemy soldiers. I did not for one second anticipate that weapons would be part of a sacred ritual in a church. It seems patently medieval and slightly blasphemous to me, and I wonder if Jesus Christ himself would approve. Or, would he say, ‘put away your sword’, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. I know that some people see no contradiction in it.

Then I look around me. The Great War Memorial Window dominates the front of the cathedral. According to the service sheet, the window represents ‘Victory through Sacrifice’, and contains the Coats of Arms of the Otago and Southland Regiments, and the Arms of New Zealand and the United Kingdom. One of the top line of figures is St Michael, the Warrior Angel. Later, we will all face the window while we listen to The Last Post. The Anglican Church, as the establishment church in New Zealand and Britain, has always had a close relationship with the military, and military symbols are ubiquitous in its buildings. I suppose allowing real weapons into an act of worship is only in keeping with this close historical relationship. Nonetheless, it shocks and dismays me. I wonder if those guns have ever killed people, and if so, what were their names, who were their children, or their parents? Hopefully, they have only ever been fired at targets of humans, not real humans.

After singing ‘God Save the Queen’ again (which is described as ‘The National Anthem’ in the service sheet; apparently we have two national anthems), the priest prays the Bidding Prayer, in which one of the lines is: We affirm again our determination to put an end to all armed conflicts. I can certainly agree with this, although I wonder at the sincerity of it when armed soldiers are invited into the cathedral, and the church has a formal relationship with the military. But then the priest goes on: we express our penitence for those occasions when they become necessary; and we acknowledge with sorrow the suffering and destruction they cause. I can’t help feeling disappointed. This sounds like an excuse, a cop-out. How many times have we heard politicians say the same thing: ‘this war, like the last one and the one before that, and the one before that, is absolutely necessary. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. Sometimes you simply have to bomb someone.’ It seems to me that this is how we get away with simultaneously praying for peace and acknowledging the sorrows of war, whilst unceasingly preparing, training and planning for the next one. In this context, committing oneself to peace clearly means preparing for the day you have to bayonet an enemy soldier or bomb his house.

After a hymn, the priest leads us in the Prayers of Approach and Confession. He says the words, Jesus Christ, who teaches us to live peacefully, but I think in this context he does not mean the Jesus who is called the Prince of Peace, and who said ‘put away your sword’, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, ‘turn the other cheek’, and ‘love your enemies’. I think they mean the Jesus who would train to be a soldier, go to war and stick a bayonet in someone before shooting them in the face; or, the Jesus who would drop bombs from a fighter jet on a house which blows the legs off a little boy playing nearby. I never saw this Jesus in the Bible, but some people claim they do.

The priest then leads us in the ‘Litany of Reconciliation’ from Coventry Cathedral. Having visited the ruins of Coventry Cathedral where there is a peace monument linked to Hiroshima, I can relate to this prayer and am happy to see it here. I silently mouth the words, even though I can’t suppress my doubts about whether we really understand the implications of what we’re saying, or whether we’re really prepared as a society to take the necessary steps to make this prayer a reality:

For the hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class;

Father, forgive us.

For the covetous desires of nations and peoples to possess what is not their own;

Father, forgive us.

For the greed which exploits human labour and lays waste to the earth;

Father, forgive us.

For our envy of the welfare and happiness of others;

Father, forgive us.

For our indifference to the plight of the homeless and the refugee;

Father, forgive us.

For the lust which uses ignoble ends the bodies of men and women and children;

Father, forgive us.

For the pride which leads us to trust in ourselves, and not in God;

Father, forgive us.

I could be wrong, but this reads like a prayer against the dangers of patriotism and nationalism to me. It sounds like a call for compassion and disarmament and an end to war and all forms of violence. Nevertheless, at the end of the prayer, I can’t help thinking that there are a few other things we ought to be asking forgiveness for:

For the incalculable treasure we have wasted on building weapons of war and mass destruction, treasure which could have been used to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, educate the poor;

Father, forgive us.

For the weapons we continue to build, we continue to amass, and we continue to spread over the whole earth through the unregulated arms trade;

Father, forgive us.

For the uncountable and nameless thousands who have died at our hands and in our name in the Middle East and elsewhere over the past ten years;

Father, forgive us.

For electing leaders who we know are uncommitted to the cause of peace and who are far too willing to sacrifice our young people in unnecessary and pointless wars;

Father, forgive us.

For allowing ourselves to be deceived by lies and distortions and fears and the lack of imagination to find other alternatives to organized killing;

Father, forgive us.

For forgetting the humanity of others and engaging in mass killing and injury in the name of political objectives;

Father, forgive us.

For forgetting to remember the names of those we have wrongly killed in war;

Father, forgive us.

The real readings and prayers continue. A man in a uniform with lots of medals on his chest reads from Micah chapter 4: They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more… I wonder how amazing it would be to bring out the guns the soldiers carried in a few minutes before and beat them into a lump of metal which could be made into a plough. What an amazing demonstration of commitment to peace that would be. It would be in all the papers. There’d be questions in Parliament for sure. I also wonder if we could announce the end of all military training; no more learning war anymore. Instead, we teach peace and nonviolence and conflict resolution. The Lord makes wars to cease in all the world; The Lord breaks the bow and snaps the spear, and burns the shield in the fire. Sadly, Western countries make new and better weapons far faster than God can break them. The world is drowning in guns, making more wars and violent conflicts likelier by the day. I also think that a lot of people would be very sad to see God make all wars cease across the world. Who would we be as a nation if we couldn’t commemorate war? From what would we draw meaning and purpose? Where would our entertainment come from?

Each branch of the military has a special prayer. The Naval Prayer asks God to Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy; that we might be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth. The shadow of the empire returns, as does the spectre of our violent enemies. There are prayers for the Army and the Air Force, and then incongruously, the Police. I can’t help but think that this is not a coincidence or an anomaly. The Police are more and more considered part of the military now. I expect that in future they will have their own Colours and they will march to the front of the church with pistols on hips and swords drawn. We’ll be praying for victory against enemies at home and abroad.

The priest’s procession moves to the Great War Memorial Window. We turn towards it in a shuffling unison. The Last Post is movingly played, and The Ode is read aloud:

They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them.

We will remember them.

As the notes of the sad music fade away, I feel that I really do want to remember them, and to honour them, those countless men and women slaughtered in an orgy of mass killing for King and Empire, and all the young lives lost since that ‘war to end all wars’. Many of them went to war with noble and good intentions. Most of them were probably good people who felt they were doing their duty, who wanted to serve their country and mankind. But I want to remember them in a way that cannot be used to force me into accepting another war. I want to remember and honour them in ways that will ensure that no one has to suffer like that again. And I want to honour them with the truth, not lies and distortions about how they died for our freedom, for democracy. I think it greatly dishonours them to make up stories that are patently untrue. If their deaths are to have meaning, they must involve a full acknowledgement of the truth: they were slaughtered for no good reason that we would recognize today. Their lives were sacrificed by vainglorious, warmongering leaders. This truth, that soldiers are most often sacrificed by politicians for venal and ignoble reasons, might save the next generation from these horrors, but only if we acknowledge it honestly.

I want to remember them and their victims; all the victims of war, intentional and unintentional. I want to acknowledge that the man or the child accidentally killed by a New Zealand serviceman in Afghanistan has the same right to be remembered and acknowledged as the soldier deliberately killed by a Taliban bomb. Only when we acknowledge and remember the humanity of all people, instead of treating some lives as more worthy and more special than others, can we start to break down the mindset that makes war a seemingly permanent part of our world.

When we say the Lord’s Prayer, I wonder again what God really thinks of it: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven. Apparently in God’s kingdom, people train and equip themselves to slaughter others. They drop hugely powerful bombs on cities, including phosphorous bombs and cluster munitions which kill children for years afterwards. Apparently, God’s will is that we pray for peace in church and then go out and prepare for war, making sure that we can pulverize any enemy who we think stands against us. Either that, or we don’t really mean it when we pray these radical words. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Sorry Lord, you might forgive but we don’t. We get even. If they come over here and kill some of our citizens, we certainly don’t consider forgiveness an appropriate response. We go over there and smash them instead. For every one of our civilians killed, we kill ten or twenty or a hundred of theirs.

I am so tired now. I can’t stop the waves of despair and shame and sorrow that sweep over me with every lie, every hypocrisy, every ugly distortion, every hidden violence. I feel a little weepy and want to go home. I don’t want to see any more guns in church or hear any more men in uniform with medals on their chest talk about peace and justice.

And then we sing the final hymn:

I vow to thee my country – all earthly things above –

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:

The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the alter the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

My eyes swim with tears, and I feel a heavy weight in the pit of my stomach. I can understand it now, I can see it in the words, the sheer madness which makes war, which slaughters and destroys the earth and all that’s good in it. It is that deep patriotic love which asks no questions, and that is willing to lay on the altar all that is dearest and the best, and which makes the ultimate sacrifice, for love of country. This would be mindless fanaticism in anyone else, but for us, for our society, it is noble sacrifice. At the very least, it’s unquestioned, admiral loyalty. But isn’t this at the root of war and violence? Isn’t this unquestioning willingness to kill and die for an abstract notion of ‘nation’ the madness that makes organized mass killing possible in the first place? How can we remember the sorrow of the war dead while singing joyously about this kind of sick, fanatical patriotism? How can we acknowledge that war is destructive and evil, and pray for peace, while we sing in celebration of murderous, obsessive patriotism?

I am stunned by the bitter hatred I feel towards the sentiments of that verse, how inherently mad it seems to me. How it makes me want to scream, ‘No! Stop! Think about what you’re singing! This is sheer madness! Unquestioned dying for patriotism?’ I try to concentrate on the second verse instead:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are Peace.

I wonder why this can’t be the only verse we sing of this beautiful tune, and whether anyone else notices the profound contradiction between the two verses. There is another country, one not defined by nationalism and violence, one in which peace, willing suffering and gentleness are its deeper values. It’s a country without armies, without killing, without unthinking patriotism. It’s this country we ought to look forward to, work for, try to create in our lifetime. It’s this country we ought to pledge our allegiance to.

The service ends with ‘The Act of Rededication’. The priest prays: Let us rededicate ourselves to building a world in which there is justice and peace for all, and where women, men and children live a life of full human dignity. We all respond with the words, Lord God our Father, we pledge ourselves to serve you and all people in the cause of justice and peace, and for the relief of want and suffering… I am so tired now, but I really, really want to believe that we mean it. I ache to believe it. And if the service had ended on this note, at this moment, I might well have put aside all the rest of it which seemed ambiguous, and untruthful, and militantly patriotic. I would have gone home with a little hope in my heart.

But then the priest gives a final Blessing in which he asks God to grant peace and concord to the Queen, the one who reigns over us, and for whom our ‘glorious dead’ ultimately sacrificed themselves. The empire and its lies creep back into the service once more. Next, we sing the New Zealand National Anthem in rousing voice, asking God to defend our free land. It reminds us that God is definitely on our side, especially during times of war and conflict. It also reminds us that while we might pray for peace and a world where nations do not hate each other, it is to the nation we owe our greatest love and there is no higher duty than to die in the service of one’s country. For a soaring moment as we sing, we forget that patriotism and nationalism have been the cause of more bloody wars than almost any other force in history, and that patriotism combined with religion has proven to be the single most powerful motivation for inducing men and women to slaughter each other.

The memorial service ends the way it began, with men carrying guns and bayonets who march in perfect time to the altar, collect their Colours from the priest and then slow-step back down the aisle. We all stand in a sign of silent respect as the men with guns and military flags lead the clergy procession. I am now in a deep spiritual agony and can hardly stop myself from sobbing out loud. My wife can see my distress and we don’t stay long at the reception.

I will never go to a Memorial Day service again. At least, I won’t go again until weapons of war are no longer displayed and admired in the ceremony; until the nationalistic flags and emblems which people fight under have no place in the service; until they stop singing songs of empire and nation and patriotic duty and instead sing hymns of peace and human solidarity; until they acknowledge and remember all the victims of war, not just our country’s soldiers; until they pray to God to save and protect the innocent as well as the soldiers on deployment; until they include prayers for all those killed and injured in our name; until they acknowledge those who have demonstrated the courage of their convictions by becoming conscientious objectors and anti-war activists; until they pray against all the demonic forces which lead people to commit violence, including imperialism, nationalism, patriotism, racism, greed, and fear; until they tell the truth about how many of our soldiers died for lies, and empire, and aggression; until they show they really mean what they say and actually start working for disarmament and the de-militarisation of the world; until they beat all the swords and guns into ploughshares, and radically reduce the military budget, and stop spreading weapons to every corner of the globe; until there are as many white poppies worn among the congregation as red ones; until questioning and thinking for oneself is welcomed and valued; until they allow us to remember and honour the war dead in other ways that do not reinforce the practice of war but instead break it apart.


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