War and Peace

by carl on June 28, 2013

June 28, 2013. Today marks 99 years since a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That act, a minor news item in British newspapers whose readers and editors were more worried about their troubles in Ireland, would spark World War I little more than a month later.

By the time that war was over, it killed more than 8.5 million soldiers of all nations, according to the U.S. War Department, a figure that Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, says is probably too low, “by about a million. ” The author also reports estimates of the civilians killed in that war: 12 to 13 million.

Could that war have been prevented—or even stopped? Hochschild never answers that question outright. He describes in bleak terms the entangling alliances, arms races and land grabs among colonial powers, and the naïve public assumption that such a war was impossible because the big powers’ economies were too dependent on each other. He also details the grim decline of the peace movements in Britain, France and Germany – where workers had once promised not to fight one another – and the rise of jingoism that preceded the outbreak of World War I.

Hochschild gives readers a full account of Aeschylus’ warning that “in war, truth is the first casualty.” Contributors to this first casualty were such British writers as Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Edward Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy and others who all agreed to write war propaganda for the British government. The editors of major British newspapers suppressed news of the horrendous casualties along the Somme and other battles of the war. An unauthorized letter by a soldier serving on the front to the British government could result in a court martial. Hochschild describes how 17 conscientious objectors to war were shipped to France in the early days of the war, where they could have been shot for refusing to fight. Only when the news of that act was sent to a sympathetic Member of Parliament who raised a question about it in Parliament – followed by a protest by Bertrand Russell to British Prime Minister Asquith – were the lives of the 17 pacifists spared.

So where are we today? The last large international war since World War II that consumed huge armies and subjected soldiers and civilians to intense bombardment was the Vietnam War (1963-1975) – known in Vietnam as the “American War.” At the height of the war there were 549,000 American GIs plus 400,000 South Vietnamese soldiers fighting between 280,000-500,000 NLF or Vietcong troops and between 200,000-690,000 North Vietnamese. More bombs were dropped on Vietnam during this war than were dropped by the U.S. during all of World War II. In Laos alone, the U.S. dropped 260,000 cluster bombs, according to Mike Honda, U.S. Representative in Congress for the 15th district in California.

But since the peaceful revolutions that ended Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, countries at war have not used huge armies and massive bombing campaigns. Today’s battles do not consume huge armies or need large air forces. Today’s international wars are fought with U.S. drones bombing targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen and much smaller Taliban and Al Qaeda forces using rifles, mortars, improvised explosives, suicide bombers – all begun most tragically by Al-Qaeda in two airplanes that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City in 2011.

What are those in Canada working for peace doing today? Personally, I recently finished my work laying out and writing the introduction to the forthcoming book, Four Elements of Peacebuilding, by Gianne Broughton. It shows the contributions made to the reduction of violence and transformation of violent conflicts — transformations aided by civil society organizations, among them Peace Brigades International and Nonviolent Peaceforce.

After I had finished my work on the book, I attended the reception for exhibit at the Canadian War Museum had mounted an exhibit on the subject of peace. As long-time writer and photographer Koozma Tarasoff pointed out, credit should go to Amber Lloydlangston, assistant historian at the Canadian Peace Museum for making this exhibit a reality in the first place. After saying this, Koozma went on to list 15 things that those concerned with peace would have included in such an exhibit but were missing in this one. On this wish list were the following: a larger space for the role of the United Nations in peacemaking, an examination of the influence of Lev Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in nonviolent peacemaking, and an extensive display on the history of the peace movement through the centuries.

On June 18, I was invited to a dinner for my former colleague at Canadian Friends Service Committee, Iain Atack, now Assistant Professor in International Peace Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics of Trinity College Dublin. He gave me a copy of his book, Nonviolence in Political Theory, published by Edinburgh University Press in 2012. Around the table were his brother Peter Atack, now a lecturer in human rights at Carleton University, and other roommates of Iain and Peter’s former flat on Lansdowne Avenue in Toronto in the 1980s, a place we used to call “the centre of the universe.” The discussion was lively that evening. Iain’s book – and our discussion – ranged from Hobbes and Locke to Tolstoy and Gandhi. And of course, we talked about some of the newest contributions to nonviolent peacemaking – Peace Brigades International, for whom Iain had worked in Sri Lanka, and Nonviolent Peaceforce, whose founding convention I helped to run as co-ordinator of the volunteer minute-takers in Surajkund, India, in November 2002.

On June 24, I participated in the second meeting of PeaceQuest Ottawa, a local group inspired by PeaceQuest Kingston, formed to engage Canadians to talk about peace and war in the period up to and through the 100th anniversary of World War I. Gathered at a local church were some of the brightest and most committed representatives of civil society in Ottawa, and two key members of PeaceQuest Kingston: Judi Wyatt and Jamie Swift. The attempt to come to terms with World War I has already generated some heat, as shown by the scathing criticism of Quebec MP Alexander Boulerice by the Sun newspaper chain for Boulerice’s condemnation of the First World War.

Maybe Gandhi will prove right once again: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

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