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I once spent a year studying all the violent international conflicts between 1945 and 1995. Fifty years of people killing, raping, torturing, terrorising and brutalising each other. It was research for an encyclopaedia of international conflict. It was a great opportunity for a grad student to co-publish a book with a well-known professor, a real boost to my academic career. I had to carefully catalogue who attacked who, how many people died, where all the refugees fled to, when they finally stopped killing each other, which countries sent arms to the protagonists, what was done to try and stop it. All the gory details of organised political murder.

To this day I can remember reading a story about the Korean War in Keeings Contemporary Archives. I was sitting in the university library. It was a bright Autumn day. There were students all around me. I could hear them writing, turning pages, gossiping, munching on snacks. I started reading newspaper summaries of the conflict. After outlining the current state of fighting, one report mentioned a new kind of flame thrower developed by the American forces. It fired flaming liquid a hundred yards. The sticky, flaming substance would cling to human flesh while it crackled and burned. The report described in unusual detail the horror of setting a dozen Chinese soldiers on fire, and how impressed the senior officers were with their new weapon. I was utterly unprepared for the visceral description. The details were so vivid. I was appalled. I could almost smell the burning flesh, see the bright flames. Sitting at that library table, amongst the ordinariness of student’s studying, I must have covered my mouth with one hand as I read, although I don’t remember such a gesture. However, the fact that I can remember that day so vividly speaks to the horror I felt – and still feel – reading about how some young men, of a similar age to me, were turned into human torches, burned alive, no doubt screaming pitiously for mercy that never came.

I’ve since done similarly horrific research for subsequent academic publications on internal war, torture, state terrorism. There are many other such painful moments burned into my memory.

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Monday: I go to a lunchtime lecture by a visiting professor. It’s about how victims of physical, psychological and sexual violence in state-run care homes try to get a little justice and recognition for their state-sanctioned, society-condoned suffering. It seems that no one in authority or the media wants to believe them or to accept responsibility. So they engage in various forms of self-harm. Some try to take the government to court. None of them is undamaged by their experiences; they carry the trauma around with them like little backpacks of acid. The personal stories read out by the professor are seriously heart-rending. I feel a little weepy by the end. It’s hard to go back to my office like nothing ever happened, but I have other work to get on with.

Tuesday: We watch a documentary about Sierra Leone in my security studies class. It is pretty brutal: mutilated corpses, piles of severed hands, people being executed, beatings, terrifed refugees, children with stumps instead of feet. I show it because my students have no real idea of the reality of war. The television networks won’t show that stuff anymore, and the course readings are all so abstract and detached. So they only ever see cinematic violence in cool, stylised, slow motion. I’ve seen this video four or five times already. I can’t watch it anymore. It disturbs me too much, especially when they start to beat a little mentally ill boy they think is a sniper. The terror in his screams cuts right through me these days. It tears at my spirit and crushes my chest until it’s hard to breath. I go out of the room and come back at the end to lead the discussion.

Wednesday: I go along to a seminar on gender violence. I sit in the audience and listen to the horrific statistics – hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands – on mass rape in war, honour killings, domestic homocide, female circumcism, and lots of other equally traumatic violences enacted against women and girls. At least there aren’t any personal stories or photographs of dead or mutilated women on this occasion. Still, it’s very hard to listen to. I’m glad when it’s over, but feel ashamed of my sense of relief. It’s a really important issue. I know that. Someone needs to research this more deeply. But I can’t face any more today.

Thursday: In my terrorism course we discuss state terrorism, especially the use of torture as a way of intimidating whole populations. We talk about how some of the democratic countries innovated so-called ‘clean torture’ – torture which leaves no obvious physical marks, like sleep deprivation, stress positions, water-boarding, use of chemicals. I explain that these torture victims suffer a double torture when no one believes their accounts. I tell them stories about people I’ve met who were tortured in the war on terror. I show them some of the Abu Ghraib pictures and we discuss the deep hatred and racism that created almost identical photographs in the American South and the Holocaust. After the class, I feel drained. I sit for a long time in my office trying to gather the pieces of my self together. I need to get back to work.

Friday: I stay at home and read a PhD thesis. I am the external examiner. It is about how we might better understand why ordinary people would take machetes and systematically hack their former neighbours to death. There are stories of unbelievable horror leaking out between the pages. I have to make a real effort to be detached, objective. I try to remain focused on whether the thesis meets sufficient research standards, whether it reaches the required level of scholarship. But the stories haunt my thoughts as I cycle home. I look at the spectacular scenery. It’s impossible to think about death and torture when you’re really looking at beauty. I know the stories will slink back into my mind later, when I’m lying in the dark.

Sunday: I work on a piece I’m writing about how a regular person becomes a militant, willing to kill and die for their cause. I like to work on a Sunday sometimes. It’s quiet. I find I can think a little more clearly. It’s based on real-life stories of militants, some of whom killed children, elderly people, innocent people. Many of them experienced shocking violence themselves, or their relatives, friends, colleagues did. Or they read about horrific violence in the newspaper, came to the conclusion they had to fight back. Fire with fire. Atrocity with atrocity. I’m immersed in their pain and anger; I feel it pour out of me onto the pages.

Monday: Another week starts…

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Some days I feel like I’m being slowly crushed under the weight of this unholy knowledge. It constricts the breath out of me, squeezes my heart in a vice. No matter what I do, the stories creep back into the crevices of my mind, leaping out on me like a great toad, piercing my calm, snarling and snapping. I can’t stop thinking about the man who wouldn’t let go of the severed head of his three-year daughter in a filthy refugee camp in Eastern Zaire, even when he was taking a shit. Or, the two frightened young conscripts who had their throats cut after surrendering, writhing to death in a ditch while their captors laughed. Or the young girl who was gang raped and then had her face cut off by her abusers. They had to tranform her into the faceless victim to erase their crime. So many stories, peeking through the cracks of my work, whispering through the pages I read every day.

I don’t really understand how I do it, study this horror day after day, year after year. I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I honestly can’t say for sure how I maintain my sense of self in this daily sea of blood. It’s a miracle I don’t sink below the depths, that I’m not a depressive, an alcoholic, suicidal – or worse, an IR scholar, writing and speaking about human suffering like it’s a balance sheet, a simple tally of abstract values. I think it’s the love and kindness so freely given to me every day by my wife, my friends, my family, my colleagues, my students, sometimes complete strangers, which keeps me going. Those moments of warmth and fellowship, of being in the moment with others. And maybe the fishing, out in the mountains, or the music, jamming on guitar with mates.

Despite this burden, which is no burden at all compared to those who actually do suffer these horrors, I know this is the right path for me. It’s the right thing to do right now. Somebody needs to study this, to try to make sense of it so that we can perhaps begin to find ways of transforming all the hate and the unnecessary violence. I’m thankful to have such courageous fellow travellers, this cloud of peace scholars who share this painful road. My hope is that one day we will no longer be needed. Our work will be finished, over. We can all go for a drink. I can go fishing.

As I head away to another academic conference, this is the hope I need to sustain me.

I’ve been interested in the way societies remember war ever since I began to seriously study how war is socially constructed and legitimated. I have a fascination with war memorials and the kind of ‘banal militarism’ they represent and engender. I will always visit and photograph them when I get the chance. As material embodiments of narrative, identity and historical remembrance, they are endlessly fascinating to me. I believe they can tell us a great deal about how societies concieve of war, justify it, remember it.

This is why I was so interested to see the famous war memorial in the centre of Melbourne on a recent visit. When I got there, I was really surprised to note that it was called ‘The Shrine of Remembrance’, which is a The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourneclear indication of its religious significance and the role that religion plays today in the way we have come to remember war in Australia and New Zealand. After all, it could have been simply called a ‘memorial’ of remembrance which would have had no obvious religious connotations. A shrine, by contrast, is by definition a religious place, a place of worship and religious ritual and reflection. In this case, the shrine was also designed like a Greek temple on a hill overlooking the city.

The religious dimension of Melbourne’s shrine to war remembrance can also be seen in one of the prominent statues in the surrounding gardens. A very masculine-looking soldier poses in a very obviously The Christ-SoldierChrist-on-the-cross pose. It’s religious-sacrifical motif is linked to other aspects of the shrine’s structure, such as the Eternal Flame which burns beneath the World War II monument outside the shrine’s walls.

The eternal flame

Its religious characteristics can also be seen in the very heart of the shrine, where a plaque in the centre of the floor is engraved with the words, ‘Greater love hath no man’. This is part of a Inside the shrineverse in the bible which says, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). Here, sacrifice in war is being rewritten as a biblical virtue, a sacred duty to the nation. The architectural design of the shrine is such that on the 11th of November at 11 minutes past 11:00am (Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day), a beam of sunshine from a gap in roof moves over the words, illuminating the word ‘love’ at the moment of silence.

Inside the sanctuary of memory, the sacred names of the glorious dead who died for the greatest form of love are illuminated. They glow with a warm, holy light. The entire inner walls are surrounded by these holy books of names, each with an illuminating light and the flag of the nation. The sacred book of namesThe nation’s flag is ubiquitous – inside and outside the shrine. It symbolises the unbreakable bond between war, memory, and national identity, all of which has become wedded to a sense of the sacred.

But it’s not just religion that is being used to construct our memories of war in this place. Masculinity and its associated values are also a common motif in the shrine, much like they are in a great many war memorials. The masculine warriorsecond Vietnam War Memorial in Washington has four muscled and well-armed men looking over towards the more well-known wall of names, for example. In Melbourne, two highly masculine-looking soldiers are displayed back-to-back, an attitude of comradeship and brotherhood. One of them holds a gun; the other poses like Christ on the cross.

Similarly, in the crypt, two soldier-brothers keep watch back-to-back over the sacred regimental colours in a state of stately discipline. Not far from these brothers in arms, there is a wall of medals. A sign explains how medals celebrate the place of courage in military culture.

Manly brothers in arms

Importantly, this sacred shrine to religiously-sanctioned manly violence in the name of nation and brotherhood sits on a hill overlooking the central city. From its steps, you can look straight down into the heart of the central The gods look down on the citybusiness district. This is a deliberate design: not only do the gods watch over the city and all its ways, but citizens simply need to glance up to see the sacred shrine and be reminded of sacrifice, nation, and religious duty. It’s the reason why so many churches – and war memorials – are put on hills overlooking the town. Importantly, the inherent religiosity of this particular ‘shrine’ is quite apart from the religious ceremonial practices which go along with it. On ANZAC Day, for example, senior religious figures will participate in all the remembrance ceremonies; scripture verses will be read; hymns will be sung; and many prayers will be said.

Interestingly, in Australia and New Zealand, war remembrance has been constructed around the so-called ANZUS myth, where members of the ANZUS Regiment were needlessly slaughtered in their thousands at Gallipoli. This was not the worst loss of life for Australian and New Zealand troops in World War I, but it has in recent decades become the central narrative and symbol of war remembrance – and a primary narrative of national identity. Today, ANZAC ceremonies are attended by thousands of young people, and any national The Myth of ANZACpolicitian who wants to remain popular must be seen at them. At these events, and in a great many ANZAC remembrance materials and practices, such as movies, novels, statues, plaques, memorabilia, and so on, the central mythology is reiterated over and over: these brave and selfless soldiers went off to war to fight for our freedom and democracy; they sacrificed their lives for the love of nation, the love of the comrades, and as a consequence, we owe them a solemn debt of gratitude.

One of the interesting things about these ways of remembering, these kind of practices and material structures, is that they not only function to make us remember, they also make us forget. We forget the horror, the massacres, the war crimes, the injustices, the political controversies, the mistakes, the enemy soldiers and civilians. Instead, weAll wars rehabilitated remember the ‘glorious dead’ who died for our freedom. In this way, the practice of remembering past wars is empitied of politics. We forget the political controversies and instead unite to remember the heroic soldiers who died doing their duty. By this method, wars are rehabilitated from nasty, brutish, politically divisive, avoidable tragedies, to sacrificial hero narratives. This is why there is no irony or contradiction in remembering, for example, the Vietnam and Malaya campaigns in the foundational structures of the shrine of remembrance. Through sacred remembrance, all past wars can be rehabilitated into a new unbroken national narrative of duty and sacrifice.

Interestingly, despite all efforts to the contrary, the truth about war sometimes seeps out and confronts us with its uncomfortable truth. I was surprised to see that on the side of the shrine of remembrance, in massive letters, it proclaims to all that the men and women of Victoria died in the service of the empire. This February 2013 068is the truth of the matter: they fought to protect the British empire, with all its oppression of millions of people around the world, its domination of territories, its racist ideology, its greed for resources, its brutal violence. They certainly did not die for the freedom of Australian or New Zealand subjects, or for democratic government; the British empire tried its hardest to prevent the emergence of democracy for many of its territories for as long as it could.

In the crypt, there are two plaques on the walls, either side of the entrance. On the right hand side as you enter, it says that the crypt was erected to the honour and memory of Victorians who gave their lives in the The empire leaks outservice of the empire. This is another instance of the truth seeping out into places it is not welcome; these poor men and women were sacrificed, and gave their lives, in the service of imperialism. On the left hand side, another plaque has been erected, perhaps much later, I couldn’t really tell. This one re-writes the narrative of the opposite plaque, perhaps as a way of correcting Re-suturing the myththe impression any visitor might take. In this case, it is stated that this ‘holy place’ (note the religious reference once again) commemorates the ‘glorious dead’ who gave their lives that others might live in peace and freedom. In this way, the momentary tearing at the fabric of the heroic narrative is re-sutured. We can all rest easy in the knowledge that they died for freedom, not the continuation of oppressive imperial rule.

Finally, beyond the shrine and beyond the crypt, there is an educational centre and a memorial shop where you can purchase teddy bears wearing army uniforms, t-shirts and hats with the words and logo of the shrine of remembrance emblazened across their front, postcards, and a great deal of other war remembrance and ANZAC memorabilia. In the educational centre, peace makes an unexpected appearance. There are photos and stories commemorating Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr, A corner of peacethe Quakers, UN peacekeepers, and many other peace activists. In this way, the ‘glorious dead’, with their heroism, their comradeship, their holy love for their brothers, become part of a larger narrative in which the Australian soldiers are also ultimately fighting and dying for the cause of peace. They can be counted alongside Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, the Quakers and all those brave souls who struggle for a world without violence. Thus is the slaughter for empire in World War I, the horrors of Vietnam and Malaya, and all the other bloody and brutal wars of the past century rehabilitated into a sacred narrative of duty, sacrifice, nation and the struggle for peace.

What disturbed me about this particular memorial is that we all know how powerful religious ideology can be as a means of motivating people to commit or accept violence in war. Constructing a religiously-infused, ‘sacred’ kind of war remembrance and sense of national identity is a double-edged sword: while it helps a heterogenous settler society construct a sense of collective identity and binds people together in a new land, it also creates an emotionally-charged kind of national identity that can more easily be motivated into accepting the necessity of going to war against others who don’t share our identity or religion.

I was also disturbed that the central themes and narratives of the war memorial were so thoroughly de-historicised and de-politicised; the shrine (and the ceremony that typically accompanies it) contains no information about what really happened in those conflicts. As a consequence, by remembering we forget the horrors of war, the mistakes and miscalculations of politicians, the greed and hubris, the oppression, the unnecessary violence, the dead civilians. By not remembering the terrible things about any of the wars, it makes it so much easier for politicians to convince us to participate in the next one. They can remain safe in the knowledge that even if it turns out to be a complete and utter disaster, one day the names of the glorious dead will be inscribed into the sacred books and remembered with dignity and honour. One day soon, I expect, the soldiers who died in Iraq will have their names inscribed in the book and the words ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ will have its place on the wall of the shrine next to listing of ‘Vietnam’, ‘Malaya’, and all the other glorious campaigns. We will have then forgotten that Iraq was a disasterous, divisive war for which no politician was ever held accountable – like pretty much all the wars that came before.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

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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…”

 

I

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.

 

II

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.

 

III

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.

 

IV

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!’

 

V

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.

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