The old Lie
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Today is Armed Forces Day in the UK. It is the first time this day has been held, to honour serving and veteran members of all branches of the British armed forces.
It is slightly different from Remembrance Day, which primarily honours the war dead, and veterans of wars. Armed Forces Day however will honour all members, whether they served in war or not.
And herein lies my conundrum. I have friends, some close, some from my past, who have or are currently serving with honour and distinction in the British Armed Forces, in combat and support roles. I have relatives in the past who survived bloody combat, some serving by choice, others through obligation. I haven’t always agreed with the uses of our armed forces, but I have always supported those who have placed themselves in harms way for Queen and Country.
But I am now a Quaker, and one of our testimonies is the Peace Testimony, the belief that war as a concept is an evil that should not be suffered, that peace is not merely the absence of war but a state to be worked towards, and that this is an achievable state. As part of this, Quaker’s cannot really “celebrate” the armed forces, and so the question becomes what should the Quaker response to Armed Forces Day be?
Britain Yearly Meeting, the governing body for British Quakers, has called for an “Unarmed Forces Day”, to celebrate the work of peacebuilders, conscientious objectors, and all those actively involved in conflict prevention.
I am not so naive as to believe that we can simply disband our armed forces – there are few Quakers who believe that. There will always, sadly, be a need for the armed forces. But the best defence against attack is not to have a country armed to the teeth and ready to lay waste to all opposition, but rather to remove those causes of conflict before they escalate into armed conflict.
When I studied international law, before I even knew what a Quaker was, I was convinced that war represented a failure of policy, a failure of diplomacy, a failure to negotiate. As Churchill once said, “More jaw-jaw, less war-war”. There are some who would say that there is no negotiating with the likes of Hitler. This is true (indeed many Friends viewed Hitler as such an evil that he had to be opposed by force). But the Quakerly way would be to address the grievances that ultimately led to Hitler coming to power. The German people turned to Hitler because he promised to save them from the many problems that beset Germany at the time, many of which were caused by the other European powers. Could we have spared the lives of millions, saved the world from six years of bloody warfare, by helping the German people before they turned to Hitler?
Diplomacy addresses grievances before they become intractable. Peacebuilding, rather than peacekeeping, puts the structures for co-operation and negotiation in place before people feel they have “no choice” but to resort to violent means. Some equate pacifism with defeatism, or cowardice. But pacifism is not passive – it is an active and engaged process, that involves working to resolve problems, to keep people talking. Some say it is cowardice to not fight. There was nothing cowardly about standing up to society, when all others were baying for blood, and saying you would not take a life, but you would stride out, unarmed, onto the fields of combat, and rescue the wounded, as many Quakers did in both World Wars. Even today, Quakers stand in conflict zones as peace observers, taking enormous personal risks in the hope that their presence will prevent conflict.
Quaker Advices & Queries No. 31 says:
We are called to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars’. Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war. Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember that they too are children of God.
As Quakers we not only oppose war, but see the preparation for war as inconsistent with our beliefs – and that preparation necessarilly includes the armed forces. So the Peace Testimony, which I believe in, comes into conflict (no pun intended) with the idea behind Armed Forces Day, a celebration of military bravery, and diplomatic failure. I can honour those who paid the ultimate price to defend this country from invasion. I can commemorate those injured in the service of their country, those who are willing to risk injury and death for us, and only ask in return that we never lightly send them to face those risks. I can respect those who chose to join the armed forces and serve with honour and gallantry. But I cannot celebrate militarism, war and death, and I fear that Armed Forces Day will turn into a triumphalist celebration of the worst aspects of war.
On Remembrance Day I shall wear my red poppy for those who fell. I may even wear a white poppy as well, to commemmorate all those killed by war, not as soldiers, but as victims. I can daily hope that my friends in the armed forces survive, and work to remove the reasons for placing them in harms way. I can work to live in a world where a professional soldier is no longer required, as it is now, and where disputes are resolved with compassion and understanding, not through threats and force of arms.