Thursday, 22 January 2015

Jane Dawson Quakers in Britain

As part of the Courage of conviction launch we were joined by education office Jane Dawson of Quakers in Britain who gave a passionate talk about the their work and the continued impact of war in the present day. Here is a copy of the talk:

Events, viewed through the long lens of history, can take on a texture that distances us from them. We tend to think that certain events couldn’t happen now, that things have changed… One hundred years since WWI, has anything changed?

Since working on the Quakers in Britain WWI project, it has been clear to me that the real mood of the people, a centenary ago, was written out of the national memory. I had no idea just how much resistance there had been to WWI. Could we find ourselves in that position today?
On 2nd August 1914, two days before Britain went to war, there was a peace rally, which filled to brimming point, Trafalgar Square in London. The Manchester Guardian said it was ‘the biggest held in years’. Yet historians have led us to believe the country, the people, were behind WWI.
How did this happen? The loss of life in the early stages of the war made the government realize that a campaign to win over hearts and minds of the public was needed. There was a waning appetite for supporting the war effort. You might be familiar will the poster Your Country Needs You’, but a longer running and a more insidious campaign was embarked on to undermine those who were ambivalent or opposed to war.
Everything that wasn’t for the war effort was against it, was unpatriotic. Adverts in women’s magazine claimed that preparing certain sorts of food was unpatriotic! Anti war leaflets, pamphlets and gatherings were banned. In 1915 a Quaker, Edith Ellis, was imprisoned in Holloway women’s prison for distributing anti war leaflets.
In Manchester the headquarters of The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was raided. Here in Accrington, a Mrs Tozer led a lively women’s resistance to the wars, she was treated as a subversive.
One of the most unpleasant strands of this campaign was The Order of the White Feather. It encouraged women to hand out white feathers to young men not in uniform, in the hope of shaming them into enlisting. The feather symbolized cowardice and effeteness a scornful statement that they were not real men because they were not fighting for the defence of their country.
Any kind of persuasion based on shame is a disaster, but this was worse than most. It caused endless heartache and recrimination. Hundreds of white feathers were given out in error to men who were on leave from their duties in the army, and as a result the scheme became unpopular with soldiers. But the people doling out the feathers were unrepentant.  They thought it was better to make a mistake than risk leaving out some lily-livered shirker.
Conscientious objectors, of course, received feather after feather after feather.  The politician Fenner Brockway, who later went on to come one of the founders of CND, said in 1914 he had enough white feathers to make fan.
Ordinary people, who were against WWI, were isolated, marginalized and written out of the history books. The hegemony, or cultural norm, generated by the triple authorities of the established church, government and military - the machinery of state - was created by a deliberate series of campaigns to undermine freedom of thought and information.
Today we might feel we are immune to such obvious attempts at state propaganda. After all we are free to inform ourselves through the internet, free from the heavy weight of state authority, free to make our own minds up, we have the right to demonstrate our opposition to war.
And yet for no apparent reason, in fact at great personal cost to ourselves, through our taxes, many of choose to support the government when it wants to go to war. Of course we are all horrified when we see a UK citizen beheaded, but are we so outraged about the innocent children dying in Syria as a result of weapons bought with our money, or by conflicts we know little about.
Today is Remembrance Day. Some of us at 11am stood solemnly in silence to remember those military service personnel who died in the conflicts of the last 100 years.  Nearly 9 thousand ceramic poppies surround The Tower of London in an hugely popular installation to mark the British dead.
But what would the field of poppies at the Tower of London look like if it included the global dead of WWI?  Soldiers and civilians, allies and enemies – as opposed to just the UK dead? 19.5million poppies would flow out of the Tower, along both banks of the Thames as far south-west as Millbank, snaking around parliament and up the Mall to Buckingham Palace.
Whether we like to think ourselves susceptible or not, propaganda is at work again.  Over the last few years there has been a systematic campaign to increase support for the military In the light of a waning appetite for public spending on war.
The government have targeted the public at their most susceptible.  The young and vulnerable are reached by giving sweeteners to schools and colleges to introduce a ‘military ethos’, while the reality of conflict in the classroom is ignored. There is an increasing presence of the military at emotive national events as a jingoistic form of theatre, normalising the presence of soldiers in 21st Century Britain.  The emphasis of Remembrance Day has shifted away from its original purpose of remembering the horror of war, to ‘support our troops’. Conflating these 2 ideas in the minds of the public. Co-opting this confusion to justify our more current armed conflicts.
You can read more about the evidence base for this in the Quakers in Britain, ‘The new tide of militarisation’ , which bases its findings on 3 government papers; Future Reserves 2012, National Recognition of our Armed Forces and Defence Youth Engagement Review.
Many people are swayed by the arguments that there are some wars you just can’t win.  They say these people, these countries, are so evil they only understand violence and force; the just war argument.
I’d like to consider the just war theory for a moment. Developed over the centuries beginning with the Christian philosophers, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, to define when it was right to go to war and the fairest ways to conduct war.
A war is just:
  • If the violence is a last resort and every way of resolving the problem by peaceful means has failed
  • If it prevents greater violence or a greater injustice
  • If it is proportionate and no unnecessary violence is used
  • If the methods of warfare used are themselves reasonable and in accordance with the rules of war.
Unfair distribution of the spoils of war after WWI, led directly to WWII, as the bullied became bullies.  Today in the Middle East the horrors we see are a direct result of unjust divisions made by the super powers of the time.  A hundred years later we find ourselves appalled by the violence, the seeds of which we ourselves sowed at the end of WWI.
As we once more we take sides in the region, it will only serve to continue the cycle of violence played out in Israel/Palestine, in the Iraq war and now in Syria. These interventions have achieved only to increase inequality and instability across the Middle East.  Was WWI the war to end all wars?

A strategy to prevent to conflict might be achieved more effectively by working alongside people in the region and those who have fled to this country and understand the issues most deeply.

Today, 100 years since the outbreak of WWI have we learnt from our mistakes? Wars caused by unequal distributions of resources and unequal and unjust treatment of people. I think those problems remain. Unless we address these fundamental problems, the roots of conflict will always remain. I say war is the coward’s way; it is an appeasement of those who want a quick fix solutions.

It is easier to start a war than to end it, and that additional violence itself fuels a bloody and destructive cycle. The bitterness and hatred created lasts for generations. Such violence threatens us all.

History, of course gives us the benefits of hindsight. Very few of us today would believe that in the death of WWI was in any way proportionate. And even the history books tell us that resolving the conflicts by peaceful means were barely considered. WWI was not about preventing greater violence or injustice for ordinary people, but about power struggles within a European ruling elite. It is well known that during WWI the development of new weapons of war was a direct response to the need to win the war, so WWI became defined by machine guns and gas, creating the horror of trench war. War creates the demand to innovate increasingly more abhorrent weapons of killing, which eventually gave us the nuclear bomb in WWII and now pilotless drones.

Today we find the world a precarious place, filled with volatile conflicts and wars. Many people have a great deal to gain by going to war. Arms Dealers are only interested in profit. Our government brokers arms deals with regimes, we later find ourselves fighting. Warring against our own weapons. Western firms, brokered by western governments, supply the heavy artillery in the Middle East region.

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