Sunday, 27 November 2016

#42 WAR

There is something unique about the First World War. Was it the catastrophic losses caused by vainglorious and incompetent generals who fed our troops into the mouths of the machine guns, like meat into a sausage machine? Or is it the great cultural images of the conflict, like the War Poets, through 'Oh, What a Lovely War', to Blackadder?

On November 18th I had a rare privilege: to hear the Bristol Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Will Goodchild, accompany the original Battle of the Somme film, in Clifton Cathedral. The M4 'overture' to the event was not great: leaving London early to beat the Friday evening weekend-getaway rush (i.e. 2.30 pm) we encountered dense traffic, driving rain, fear of being late, dark, cold, lack of food, (having resisted the temptation to eat at a seedy MOTO services. The vast unheated space of the cathedral almost rounded off the slight similarity to the conditions of trench warfare, minus the trenches. 

Hot tea and symphony would have been great, but the music was wonderful and the film harrowing in the right way. It was virtually a Government propaganda film, for it was originally shown in church halls all over the country, like a newsreel or documentary, to give people a glimpse of their loved ones' experience: lines of cheerful Tommies marching off (Onward Christian Soldiers...) with their mates, to a Just War, thumbs-upping the cameraman as they passed, first trip abroad, bit of an adventure. Lots of artillery, big bangs; loads of dead Germans scattered around, horribly contorted and unrecognisable. Some injured Brits, bravely having their minor wounds dressed, often smoking like everybody else, even the ones on stretchers sometimes. Couldn't help wondering if the perpetual smoking accounted for as many casualties in the long run as the fighting.

 Now here's a thing: in the entire film you only see two British 'casualties' as they fell, virtual matchstick men in the distance: the last two of hundreds who had just gone over the top, out of the trenches, having lined up patiently, with a bit of Dutch courage, for their turn to be mowed down by machine-gun fire. Two people with families,  or from families, cut down within two seconds of getting to their feet and running towards the unknown. Slain mechanically by similar German boys trying to halt the rifles and fixed bayonets of their enemies. 

Over a million men died in this corner of a foreign field:
60,000 on the first day. The Allies lost 620,000 in the whole battle, Germany lost 500,000. Imagine a line of men standing at arm's length apart, fingertip to finger tip: a million men, in a line 2000 kilometres long, for that's how long it would be. The unbroken line would go from London to Athens. All of those men decimated, just for the bragging rights over a few miles of Northern France. Stupid is not the word. And people comply with it, for King and Country, without really knowing why, because patriotism is instilled into us as a noble, tribal sentiment, and social pressure does the rest. Ask any conscientious objector about that.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was much more cost-effective: a single 1-megaton bomb dispatched about 100,000 people. Russia and America, even after Strategic Arms Limitation, still have 1,800 nuclear warheads each, of up to 20 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. Those negotiations did not allow for the presence of an incompetent, arguably mad, man in the White House. Armed to the teeth and capable of ending our species in the space of a few hours, we have had a 70-year stand-off with a similarly equipped 'enemy'. This hair-trigger balance of power is a little too much like Russian roulette. The Cuba Crisis was the first click of hammer against empty chamber. Many people feel Syria could be the second.

What is the alternative? Pacifism?  I have been a kind of pacifist ever since joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1962 (after the Cuba Crisis). I say ‘kind of’ because two things threaten that resolve:  firstly, in 1962 the Cold War had only lasted for a decade or so, without conflict breaking out. Now it has to be conceded that mutual deterrence has probably been responsible for keeping the nuclear peace for another 50 years. The contradictions are obvious in a pacifist allowing that horrendous weapons may have actually protected us from war. Secondly, that although I don’t like to find myself ‘in bed with’ proponents of the Just War, do we have any serious alternative to taking up arms against tyrannies who have initiated state-sponsored barbarism - so far beyond the limits of civilised conduct, of the rules of law and war, that they must be opposed. The Holocaust could only have been stopped by armed intervention. And Islamic State glories in its savagery and does not negotiate, nor can anyone be seen to negotiate with them. A Pacifist brigade that proposes non-violent resistance to I.S. would simply be writing a suicide note.  These reasons have not, however, persuaded me of the case for nuclear weapons. So long as there is the possibility, of a nuclear accident, or a megalomaniac in The White House or The Kremlin wanting to leave his indelible mark on history, the world remains in danger from them.

Over a career, a good part of which has been devoted to the study of racism, I have read little-known, first-hand accounts of anti-Semitic atrocities in World War II, the details of which I don’t share with anyone, or write about, except in vague terms. Detailing them to another person is an all-or-nothing act, it cannot be revoked and there is a responsibility not to burden a student or a friend with indelible images that will shock them to their core, and that they will never be able to erase from their minds. So whether you wish to believe me or not, I will simply say that these things would convince anyone short of a violent psychopath that war is the greatest human evil. War is the umbrella, the rationale and justification which permits and encourages this sub-human behaviour in humans. 

The biggest contradiction is that the most intelligent species of all cannot utilise that intelligence to resolve conflict by words, by rational argument, it must descend millions of years down the evolutionary ladder to the level of simply slaughtering opponents. And societies and nations do that with such sickening regularity, that people may conclude that we have not evolved very far from those primitive ancestors. That violent aggression may be endemic. I have never believed that, if only because we are social animals whose whole existence is based on co-operation with others - which is endemic.
When two of the very greatest thinkers of the 20th century (from fields that are poles apart: Psychoanalysis and Nuclear Physics)) co-operate to address the issue of War, you may conclude that it is worth reading their correspondence. Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud produced a 64-page ‘pamphlet’, called  'Warum Krieg?' -‘Why War?’ - in 1933, as Hitler was rising to power. As Jews, they were right to fear this development and anticipate a second World War. Both were fortunate to leave Germany before it broke out. The distinguished British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, wrote a foreword to a later edition of their work, adding a third voice of immense authority to their chorus. How did these super-brains conclude that pacifism, conscientious objection and negotiation were the only answers to militarism, warfare and mass slaughter?

Pacifism is a position of great purity. The point of departure is the sanctity of human life and the moral conundrum of combating evil violence with evil violence: the logical conclusion of which has to be non-violent protest, diplomacy, economic and political sanctions.  Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela (and the thousands following their example) made it work. But would it have stopped the Nazis, Idi Amin, Pol Pot or the Slave Trade? Clearly not.

Wars are mostly fought over territory, resources like oil,  or religion or ideology. Where on earth did we get the idea that those issues can only be decided by armed conflict? That to triumph is not to make your side right, because it means nothing more than that you have more troops, better arms, better strategy. In that sense Nazism could have gone right around the world, because they were better prepared for total war, they planned it. Nothing else is proven by victory. God is like the old the BBC here, not on anyone's side, officially.

However, all is not lost. I'm not offering solutions, or preaching, but we need to think more creatively. We could opt for World Government, our rulers decided by the quadrennial World Cup.  Ludicrous, but it makes more sense than megadeaths in warfare. There would be a price to pay, of course: for every four years, of Brazilian laid-back, coffee and samba beat, there would be another of dog-eating robots from the country who had cracked the genetic code of virtuoso footballers.

Recent events suggest an alternative. It might be possible, given their friendship and their machismo, to persuade Putin and Trump to avert nuclear war, and establish supremacy by a half-naked arm-wrestling contest, instead of a nuclear exchange. Get wise. Learn The Red Flag now, the smart money's on the rat-faced Russian, not the Orange lardy-ass.

In the late 1950s, a rather progressive English teacher, Michael Riddle, introduced us to the War Poets. There has always been a thread of English Literature which glorified war (Henry V: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead"; The Charge of the Light Brigade etc). But the First World War brought a sea-change: poetry from the perspective of the poor bloody infantry, the ones who suffered the depredations and deprivations of the trenches: the ones who had to run towards the sound of the guns that would end their lives, side-stepping their dead and dying friends on the ground around them.  It was fertile ground for a new poetry of war which could convey the anguish as well as the courage and camaraderie. 

For those of us students who were in CND, trying to advocate an anti-war philosophy to a British audience still mired in the patriotism and the emotion of WW2, this poetry was music to the ears:  a validation. I have chosen to paste in one which is not about blood-and-guts, or rat-infested trenches.  It sets the robotic, mechanical drilling of men in the cleaning of rifles, against a backdrop of nature getting on with life, unconcerned about the idiocies of its so-called premier species.  In a subtle way it explains how men can be trained to sacrifice themselves, 'just following orders'. In fact it comes from World War2, but the message is the same, and it would apply equally to National Service or the Falklands War. It is about instilling the reflex of obedience, mindless rule-following and the obsessive banality of military life. Henry Reed's 'The Naming of Parts':

Although the top graphic shows that there have been very few years during the 20th century in which a major war was not raging somewhere in the world, the lower one shows clearly that the number of war deaths has declined hugely over that period. Encouraging progress? Looks like it, but then you would have to remind yourself that a President has just been elected who is vengeful and unstable, and believes in the active use of nuclear weapons and is more likely to unleash a major conflagration than any of his predecessors.

Classical music has been inspired by war since Tchaikovsky' 1812 and possibly before. Popular music was slow to follow suit with the exception of the music hall songs which the men sang in the trenches. Everything changed at the dawn of the 60s. Even his detractors would have to credit Bob Dylan with the birth of the protest song, in his early years with the simple but poignant Blowin' in the Wind and the hard driving Masters of War, and Hard rains are gonna fall. Less familiar is his Talking World War 3 Blues, a satirical fantasy about being the only survivor after a nuclear war. Well worth a listen. 

In the UK, Donovan aimed to be the English Dylan, and one of his very first songs, The Universal Soldier, was quite a good anti-war protest song, even if it lacked Dylan's  edge and charisma.


Barry McGuire's Eve of Destruction was catchy and possibly sincere, but it came across as a Tin Pan Alley creation, a synthetic construction aimed at a new youth market for political commitment in the pop music scene. See what you think.

There are hundreds of other songs arising from people's involvement in the Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, but the common feature was to oppose war and often do so in a satirical way. Country Joe and the Fish were typical. Here they are at Woodstock singing their antiwar anthem. When they sang "be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box, it didn't go down very swell in Middle America...

I'm not going to say that the Beatles jumped on the bandwagon, because they were genuinely influenced by Dylan though perhaps less by his lyrics than the dope he introduced them to. Besides he was coming out of his most overt political phase when he met them. But they did want to show what side they were on, and along with many others, John Lennon in particular couched it in terms of being pro-Peace rather than explicitly anti-war in their lyrics. Not quite the same thing.

Finally, antiwar protest, raised and 'spiritualised' to the level of poetry and set to one of the most poignant melodies in contemporary music, IMHO:

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