You know, by and large, people only deny stuff if it’s true. I deny being an anything-ist. I’m not a feminist, not an atheist, not a pacifist. This from a man who actively believes that the world would be a better place if (pretty much all) strategic decisions were determined by diverse collectives comprising both (all?) genders, that the Bible is an empty irrelevance, and that any kind of violence is just plain wrong.
Why do I take pains to deny my allegiances? I think it’s because my mistrust of morally-aligned humans is bigger than my mistrust of wrong thinking. For any cause with which I am inclined to agree, there seems to be a collection of bitter vloggers and commentators telling me that if I think this, then I also have to think that. Well, no. Thanks for the advice, guys, but I’ll stick with what feels right to me. Truth to my experience of life is more precious to me than membership of your club. And yes, you probably are talking eighty percent good sense, but I’d rather draw a breath of fresh air than be corralled into your army.
Patriotism is a case in point. I love the country of my birth. Every time I go there, it looks so magnificent, from the imperial majesty of central London through the village quaintness of the Cotswolds to the rolling temperate rainforests of Shropshire and Mid Wales. I know that these townscapes and landscapes were built on blood sweat and tears shed in battles of man against nature and man against man. I know that these vistas were preserved by the heroism of patriots who gave their lives in noble duty to resist the evils of fascism. But truth to tell, it’s the physical place I love, not especially the people.
Now I freely admit that it is relaxing for me to be among those with whom I share a language and a culture, but I have been around enough to know for sure that British people are no better or nicer than the people of other nations. Different perhaps. Better? No.
And so when I am approached to honour the memory of our armed forces every November, my reaction is to ask why should I praise the soldiers of my nation for killing the soldiers of other nations just because my soldiers happen to have been born on the same side of a dotted line as me? A line drawn on a map by people in history who I don’t care about?
At times like this, I feel so lucky not to have been born 15 or 20 years before the war. Or rather before any of the dozens of wars that the leaders of my nation have chosen to fight. I wouldn’t have been much use to anyone, wouldn’t have had the guts to be a hero, nor the conviction to be a conscientious objector. It’s so easy for me to preach peace in peacetime sitting here in a paradise forged from centuries of armed conflict. Is my hypocrisy indefensible? I owe it to my own self-esteem at least to interrogate my moral beliefs.
I recall a hippie poster from the seventies. Under a CND symbol adorned with flowers ran lettering distorted as if seen through wavy glass “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” And a few decades later I glimpsed a tattoo on the arm of a muscle-bound man on a boat that read “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
My sympathies are heavily with the former. I now learn that it was the name of a movie, but I knew it then as what we would now call a meme. I find it beautiful, clear and mind-stretchingly elegant. Suppose they did . . .
The quotation from the Bible isn’t so enlightening though. As a statement it’s just a simple truism. But modern usage has reinterpreted it as an intimidating imperative and then perverted it further.
To start with, the word “friends” in that sentence means friends, (the Greek word is φίλος meaning beloved or dear) I would never ask a friend to give their life for me, and I would have mixed feelings if the same was asked of my loyalty to them. So yeah, if I laid my life down for someone I would surely love them.
My real antipathy to that phrase is because I usually hear it weaponised in some brutal perversion of the innocent descriptive phrase that it is. The modern interpretation hears it as a passive aggressive imperative; an intimidating whine, “If you don’t fight your nation’s enemies, then you don’t really love your own people.” Note here the subtle reinterpretation of the innocent word “friends” as meaning “compatriots” or even “government”.
I can use this thought-experiment to examine my own moral beliefs. Imagine that I had found myself as a younger me, conscripted into a small band of soldiers in an armed conflict. We would have been mutually responsible for each others lives. I know myself well enough to be certain that under such pressure, I would develop a personal love for my comrades, and I can see myself playing my part and risking my life despite my moral objections to war in general.
But I also know that my love for my comrades would be balanced by my contempt for the system that had put me there. Meanwhile my opposite numbers in the enemy would want my blood because they too had been pressganged or brainwashed into an equivalent manufactured camaraderie for the sake of their own government’s power plays.
We still lie in the shadow of the Nazi war. A form of fascism that I agree was particularly evil. The Nazis were responsible for at least three genocides. But they weren’t unique. According to Wikipedia there have been no fewer than seventeen genocides since the holocaust. The most recent being the slaughter and exile of Muslims by, wait for it, Buddhists! What would I do about that? Education? Enlightenment? The empowerment of women? Well actually, yes. Those are all pretty slow remedies, but I feel they are significantly better than the demonisation of the footsoldiers of whatever nation my government decides it wants to martyr my children for.
My family and I benefit from the beauty, the comfort, the peace, that is available to me because my ancestors were better at being brutal than most everyone else’s ancestors. Do I feel guilty about that? No not really, what good would that do?
But I do feel lucky and aware of the responsibility of privilege. I feel a duty to be gentle and peaceful and wise. I feel a duty to be inclusive and welcoming and generous. I feel a duty to use the calm that I enjoy, economically and culturally able to avoid war zones, to propagate peace.
I hope that in the future more and more wise young people on all sides will boycott conflicts. Conflicts that are offered to them by their respective governments with all the romantic lies of patriotism.