Monday, October 31, 2005

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 1

It's the time of year again when the war dead come to the forefront of the national consciousness. As much as I think that it is a shame that we seem only to think so heavily about such issues at this time of the year, it is certainly a positive thing that we do take the time to pause and reflect. The rituals of remembrance are highly familiar, and there is something that is almost reassuring about the ceremonies themselves. Wearing a poppy, observing a two minute silence, possibly attending a church service or parade. Yet to a certain extent, these rituals also stifle debate; our terms of reference are narrow and unthinking. When others question the meaning of the rituals - for example the odious Yasmin Alibhai-Brown refusing to wear a poppy for fear of appearing in favour of war, there is almost a stock response of disgust from certain channels. Do we think enough about why we do wear the poppy, however, or is it just a show of societal conformity?

When I think about these issues, I find that I have a strong ambivalence. When I think about white poppies, for example, I am reminded of my belief that pacifism, in its crudest form, is immoral, because it is used as an excuse for appeasement and for refusing to confront evil. Then again, I read a post like this, and my precepts are challenged very strongly once again. What I hope to do in the couple of weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, therefore, is to write a series of posts connected to the theme of remembrance and war - as much to clarify my own thoughts as to make points for others.

I'm going to start by addressing the question of white poppies. Steve the Pub Philosopher wrote about the Poppy Appeal last week; in the comments, Jeremy Reynolds wrote that "however well intentioned, a white poppy is an insult, a slap in the face, to veterans and their families". I've certainly not come across many topics as emotive as white poppies; two teachers at my school had a proxy battle over the issue. Mr Reynolds is in my opinion wrong; the white poppy appeal was set up itself by many widows or wives of veterans. Whilst a deliberate inversion of the societally accepted form of remembrance, deliberately designed to make a political point, is always going to be provocative, I do not think the white poppy was designed to insult veterans. Insofar as it makes us think again about the fundamental assumptions of our remembrance, indeed, I think they serve a valuable purpose.

I reject completely, however, the principles on which the Peace Pledge Union operates, for it veers towards the crude pacifism that I abhor. I frequently ask pacifists how they would have dealt with Hitler in 1939 without a recourse to arms; I have yet to receive a convincing answer. To say our path could have been different earlier does not help. Firstly, it is reading history with hindsight, and that does not help us consider what actions could have been taken at a specific juncture. Secondly, it implies that human nature can always make the right decisions - it can't, man is fallible, and so there still is no argument against the necessity of a final call to arms. Thirdly, evenly if the agency of one party could be perfect, operating under the belief that an enemy will hold themselves to the same standard is naive in the extreme.

The decision to go to war is not a decision that should be taken lightly. It is a horrible, vile thing, that causes far more pain and suffering than can ever be desirable. And yet I cannot think of a situation in which a blanket refusal to make a recourse to arms is profitable to a country; a single instance where it will not simply encourage an enemy to continue in an ever-more belligerent matter. As a last resort, once all other avenues have been explored, when a failure to act would mean submitting to the will of an evil enemy - then war is justified, to prevent the spreading of greater evils.

John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" is one of the most evocative poems of the Great War. It ends with the verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields
This emphasises what must be the key point of remembrance. Men in the past believed that there were causes that were significant enough to die for (whether WW1 was one of them is a different matter). Do we still believe that today? Personally, I do, but societally speaking, I'm not so sure; yet there is a way of life which we keep talking about wanting to defend. Does that mean we are breaking faith with the fallen? One of the messages of our remembrance, therefore, must be this: there are causes that are worth dying for. There are, therefore, causes that are worth fighting for. And whilst the bloodthirsty bellicose cheerleaders for war may be repugnant in their attitudes, we shouldn't let that obscure a more vital point - that unless we are prepared to fight for what we believe in, then ultimately we have to be prepared to lose it.