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We can see the horrors of war... so how can we still glorify violence?

War stories can gripping, poignant, sometimes even inspiring – but surely it’s time for us as a society to embrace pacifism, writes Prof John Maguire.

John Maguire

A CENTURY AGO millions of men and women lost their footing in the floodtides of propaganda, becoming more-or-less willing, more-or-less unwitting agents of an insane carnage. I respect their stories, but why should I remember them more reverently than someone who died a hundred years ago of old age, a firefighting accident, a fall downstairs, or other such cause?

Indeed, I can relate more easily to anyone who didn’t threaten death or destruction on themselves or others. Just what makes war so special – positively special, that is: the defining accent of our history, the bright shining moment that shades the rest of our lives as merely mundane? Yes, the war stories are gripping, often poignant, sometimes even inspiring; but need we – should we – seek pathos and inspiration in images of destruction?

Every life matters, so how can we glorify any death?

We all face the ultimate reality of death, and must come to terms with it sooner or later. But how can we glorify dicing with death in a society that professes to be concerned about suicide, particularly among young men?

Are we wise to convey to our young people that there is unique virtue in the readiness to endanger ourselves and others?

I oppose war because I dislike pain and destruction. Sometimes we should value pain – for example when it alerts us to ill-health – but we should never instigate it, save when unavoidably caused by the doctor and accepted by the patient. Knowing pain and why I avoid it, I don’t want to inflict it on others. Embarrassingly naïve? Yes; if you don’t think so, I’m failing to communicate.

Tell me I’m concerned to save my own skin, and I’ll say yes, that’d be a start – and I attribute the same desire to others. But what of those who’d return my presumptuous gift, declaring their eagerness pro patria mori (‘to die for one’s country’)? But then, what about pro patria occidere (‘to kill for one’s country’)?

We’re entitled to seek, however misguidedly, to prove we have guts, but not by depriving someone else of theirs.

My role model for pacifism 

While others recall relatives who joined the slaughter, I fondly honour my great-uncle Frank Corcoran, a second-generation immigrant in London, who in the sixties took me to Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’ Fifty years before, with his brother Bernard, he had refused the pressure to join up. Thank you again, Uncle Frank.

Of course huge challenges will arise if we try to shape our world without recourse to violence; but are they intrinsically more difficult than those raised (and those buried) by warfare? I’ll no longer be browbeaten by demands for “a realistic alternative” from those quite prepared, through despair or destructiveness or whatever, to plunge our world further into mindless mayhem.

As for cant that “We must learn so it’ll never happen again”, we already have ample evidence of the horror of war – past, present and future – for its participants and those within their reach. Highlighting the generosity, courage and sacrifice of the warriors obscures the lack of fit between their motivations, what they ended up getting involved in, and the toxic legacy of it all down to the present day.

An honoured space for those who courageously defend people in danger

The 1914-18 commemorations are choreographed as essential to the Peace Process; however one of its architects, Mo Mowlam, declared that “all violence, for whatever reason it is perpetrated, is unacceptable” (Irish Times, 27th August 1999). Does this principle apply to here and now but not there or then; does it bind “them” (and you) but never “us” (who have no need of it)?

Should we reject notions of altruism, courage and sacrifice? By no means; but we need such vital human qualities to be nurtured and exercised humanely, on a human scale. That leaves plenty of room for the virtues of the paramedic, the firefighter, the lifeboat crew, and all who come to the rescue of others in danger.

And there could even be an honoured space for those who courageously and unselfishly defend people in danger – though they should never become the problem to which they claim to be the solution, as has most soldiering throughout history. Whenever we drift from honouring the courage of genuine defence towards glorifying the “profession” of soldiery we are exalting war as such.

Is it finally time to embrace non-violence?

Those seen as shirking their part in “the Great War” were given a white feather, usually by women or even, grotesquely, by children “enlisted” for this salutary ritual. There was clearly a deep intuition of the challenge such people posed to the whole joint enterprise of war.

At least as much truth, and at least as many of the resources for a fair and stable world, can be found among the conscientious objectors, and the “cowards”, as among the warriors and their multifarious camp-followers. Should we reclaim the white feather? I’m wearing mine already.

John Maguire, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, UCC, is the author of Defending Peace: Ireland’s Role in a Changing Europe (Cork UP 2002), and a board member of Afri/Action from Ireland.

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John Maguire

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