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, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
*Translated: "It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland."
On 11th November, we remember the men who gave up their lives to win wars for those in power. Remembrance Day started as an annual event after the First World War (28th July, 1914- 11the November, 1918) more than a hundred years ago, in memory of soldiers — some of who were lost in the battle grounds, whose remains never got back to their families. Some of these men who fought were from countries that were subservient to colonial powers who started the war and some, like the soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen, were from conquering nations.
This was much before atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eventually, a nuclear armistice was declared. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), an internationally acknowledged apostle of peace, had an opinion on this: “‘The very frightfulness of the atom bomb will not force non-violence on the world? If all nations are armed with the atom bomb, they will refrain from using it as it will mean absolute destruction for all concerned?’ I am of the opinion that it will not.” Has this nuclear armistice made the world more peaceful? And if so, what is the quality of peace that has been wrought by drumming fears of annihilation in human hearts? Could the ‘fakir…striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace’ be right after all?
Here we have collected a few stories and poems around ongoing conflicts and wars which stretch to the present day, some old and some new… some even written by men who faced battle…
We’ve all heard the adage, those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. Maybe like any good saying, it’s been over-used and we’ve forgotten to consider its core truism. But think about it. If we don’t remember, we tend to repeat former mistakes, because human-beings are very alike in their actions and reactions, and we have a horrible habit of thinking we’re so unique when we’re anything but that. The ego of is young. Occasionally, ignorance shields us from historical realities. When we get older, we sometimes stop caring and leave it to those younger to us. But both approaches have deep flaws. They abdicate the responsibility of living in this world.
What reason could any of us have for truly abdicating responsibility to our grandchildren, and those who will invariably come after we are gone? Is being young an excuse? Is being old? Or are we intrinsically fond of passing the buck, as American’s say, and not believing we’ll make enough of an impact in this world to even bother? I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s apathy and a childish belief someone else will do it for us. Just look at people who drop litter in the ocean, they don’t care that it will cause havoc on sea-life, they are not thinking of the future repercussion, they are thinking only of now. They don’t see how that one act has this deleterious knock-on effect that reverberates throughout our planet.
If you’re rolling your eyes and are about to give up reading, consider this: What is your value? What do you stand for? If you died tomorrow what would have been your legacy? Don’t think wealth or children, but your place in the chain stretching from the beginning of humanity to now. What have you done to help that chain? If you don’t think that is relevant, consider why this isn’t important to you and why being self-interested is justifiable to you when so many suffer, and the world is damaged by those like yourself who don’t care.
Maybe that sounds judgmental because of course, it is. Too often we can look back in time and see these pioneers and campaigners who try to make a change and be swallowed by disinterest on the part of the masses. Literally speaking then, the masses are the problem, because whilst a few good apples stand out and speak to things we need to do, the majority are thinking of just their survival and their immediate gratification. The concept of immediate gratification has taken deep roots in the current times.
Psychologists and thinkers have many ways to explain why the majority do nothing and seem apparently not to feel they have any obligation to improve the world we live in. Some say, it’s about human development; few attain that stage of self-realization where they feel a need to contribute beyond themselves. Others point to the hardship of life, and how when you struggle, you often do not have enough left over to help others. Of course, we all know notable examples of those who despite a hard life, gave in abundance to others.
If we remove religion and its dictate that people should help each other as part of being a good (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist) would we have a lawless approach to giving and caring, that made social concerns null void? I would say it has less to do with dogma and religion and more to do with personal ethics. There are plenty of atheists who do a great deal for others and this planet, without any desire for recompense or a place in heaven. Therefore, it seems to be a deeply personal choice or evolutionary step.
If so, why do some evolve more than others? What do we need to do to achieve that selflessness and why do not many not want to achieve it? Those questions many never be answered, but they are part of a larger picture, that of our place in this world, and what we do to ensure there is a decent world for our progeny. I’ve been told this is a utopian way of thinking and human nature is baser, seeking only to procreate and thrive, sometimes at the expense of others. I am an idealist in that I believe there is intrinsic good in many (not all) people and that’s what gives being alive its deepest worth. Without helping make the world a better place in some way, we are just oxygen users, having too many children, using too many resources and trying to kid ourselves this won’t affect the future.
Growing up I was familiar with the peace sign so popular in the sixties, and we touted many of those symbols without really considering their history or how ‘working toward peace’ had actually played out through history. Maybe like many words, ‘peace’ is over-used and we don’t consider what it means in relation to today’s world. It’s as relevant as ever. If we think we’re not needed to increase peace, we’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Peace is one of the only consistent needs we have, aside food and water. It is the erosion of peace that causes the majority of our concerns, and the dismissal of peace that leads to some of our greatest strife.
So many continue to live in a part of the planet where peace doesn’t ever reign. Let’s stop and really think about that for a moment. Those of us who don’t live in those parts often try not to think about it, because it makes us feel guilty. What can we really do? Yet if we watch the news, almost nightly politicians debate about how best to deal with this issue. Or that’s what we’re led to believe.
What if we’ve been lied to? What if major world governments and thus, the puppet political system, do not wish for peace but thrive on discord because it permits them to do what they really want, which usually has to do with power, domination/control and profit. Think of all the wars since the second World War America has been involved in. Not one of them has brought peace, not one of them has ensured or guaranteed peace. The money spent is unfathomable and would have been enough to resolve many countries crisis’s forever. The profit is hidden and often in the sole possess of those who really pull the strings and many lives are lost. For what? Peace?
The idea of going to war to promote or guarantee peace is not a new concept. Traditionally however wars were fought for one reason only, one side wanted to conquer the other side to gain something (profit, land, slaves, control) and war was typically a male endeavor and one that seemed to exist in every society where human beings existed. You could say, war was uniquely human. Similar fighting has been witnessed in other primates, and animals, and they often share the occupation or protection of territory as their prime objective, so perhaps it’s an instinctual thing within our animal psyches to go to war. However, wars in the modern sense of the word have not been as basic, and their motivations have increased with the complexity of our societies, to make what we understand by war, a thoroughly human concept.
A complex society, invariably thinks of many more strategies related to war than a simple brawl in the old days, with sharpened rocks. The more complex, the more devastating and wide-reaching and drawn-out wars, think of Rome and their stampede across the world, or Alexander the Great’s conquests. Wars have been the cause of so many negatives, not the least; sexual assault, slavery, subjugation of people’s, famine, destruction of land and property and livelihood, physical and mental suffering and the collection of extreme wealth by the minority. Does that begin to sound modern to you? It does to me.
Today’s wars are all about the optics, the phantom, the illusion. Countries go to war to act out their own strength to ensure other countries don’t forget how mighty they are. The people who get caught in these, die or suffer terribly, the displaced cause huge economic fallouts and a minority get rich. It sounds a lot like a pyramid scheme to me. I began to think of the military machine as a pyramid scheme when I began studying the wars America has been in since WW2. One could argue without America half of Europe would be speaking German now. I personally don’t believe this is true, but it’s a common myth that thanks to America, Europe wasn’t destroyed. It might be worthwhile considering how WW2 began, what part America had in it, and the specific strategies employed, because it’s never as simple as it seems, not least this repeated thirst for groups to condemn and persecute other groups. Everyone involved has an agenda, few are as civic minded as they appear, and so a war is, as I said, more complicated.
What we do know is this: The World Wars (which sadly are being phased out of being taught at schools throughout the world, begging the question, if future generations don’t know what happened and why, how can we avoid a repeat?) was a consortium of countries, spearheaded by Germany, seeking to over-run vast parts of the world, and to promote a new ideology. I can resolutely say this needed stopping and at any cost because within that, were persecutions towards groups that led to mass slaughter. This is true in most wars but the difference is, this was on a larger scale (comparatively speaking with the then-populations) and anything less than involvement would have brought disaster.
What’s different about the wars since?
World Wars one and two were world wars, they involved nearly everyone, aside from Switzerland who decided in their neutrality they could make a tidy profit, and Spain, who were having their own civil war, and made a deal to be left out of it. When everyone is involved in a war that involves everyone, we can argue, this is a war that cannot be avoided, defused or worsened by involvement.
Can the same be said of Vietnam? Were the involvements of France and then America beneficial? Could the war have been avoided? Was it necessary?
The same can be said for many other so-called necessary wars, from the smaller (Falkland’s and the UK) to larger Korean or Afghanistan. In every situation, the involvement of other countries that were not directly affected, only worsened the war and suffering, the involvement was not simply to ‘help’ others, that was never the intention, the involvement had many motivations, and only one was a true sense of ‘aid’ with a view to peace. So why is it, when we see the soldiers leaving out, or the declaration of war, we also hear the word ‘peace’ bandied around? Why do people truly believe ‘going to war’ will ensue peace when history tells us, this is rarely the case?
Too often I have heard that people have to go to war for peace, or that peace-keepers will be sent in. I find it hard to find any war that has led to peace and even then, everyone involved would agree, if it could have been avoided, that would have been a better strategy altogether. In truth, WW1 and 2 could have been avoided, if you consider what really caused them. The feelings of helplessness and loss of face, led the German population for example, to vote for candidates who promised them a better future. Nobody knew how bad this would become, but the feelings of resentment and despair were the fuel for why extremism won the vote. In that sense, it’s very much a domino effect.
If then, most modern war begins with issues that can be resolved if identified, isn’t true peace keeping, to deal with those issues, before a war begins, rather than after that? Of course, those people are called diplomats and to be fair to them, many have thwarted worse outcomes through diplomacy, but just as diplomats can be successful, they are also used as pawns in a bigger system, that of the war machine. Certain countries wish to go to war almost at any cost. Consider the war between Pakistan and India and how culpable the English were for their interference with both countries as ‘peace keeper’ when in reality it was all about subjugation, control and imperialism. If we think this is an old-fashioned term, consider the patronizing tone of Western societies when ‘peace keeping’ in other countries, taking the paternalistic approach instead of considering what got them there in the first place. Years of exploitation aren’t easy to undo.
While this is never acknowledged and is hidden behind rhetoric about trying to protect others and ensure peace, we should bear in mind the true motivation. This doesn’t make us conspiracy theorists or negative thinkers, so much as realists who see history and its repetition of such wars and quiet conquests. The homogenization of the media has seemed on the surface, a good thing, but if the ‘facts’ are controlled then it’s more of an illusion of information, although preferable to the situation in those countries where international news is altogether restricted. When I moved to America, I was surprised at how little international news was on nightly TV and of that, how they only glossed over the most salient points. But it seems the rest of the world has followed suit, with the once immutable BBC now expressing opinion rather than fact, it seems they’re all spurred on by the rush to entertain rather than inform.
The outcome of exploitation is today greater than ever. It is the reason why so many refugees seek refuge in countries overburdened with too many asylums for their fragile infrastructures. A no win situation, begun after WW2 where Jews were not permitted asylum and the Geneva Convention acted to prevent this ever occurring again, to displaced peoples, yet countries who do not possess the jobs or social infrastructure like Spain, could not realistically take in the numbers arriving. War is not always the sole determinant for asylum seeking, but it remains the main reasons. Small wars unreported on daily newscasts, prevail in areas ravaged by gangs and corrupt governments. The West might consider themselves far advanced from this desperation but if we consider how many times the West has been implicated (or should have been) in foreign affairs that led to wars, it’s definitely a fully fledged partner in the root cause.
Take the South and Central American refugees streaming into Mexico as I write, seeking asylum in America as a prime example. Thanks in part to years of American meddling in local politics. We can wash our hands of it and say: This is their war! But we should be mindful of what led to the war. It’s never as simple as it seems. Years of erosion, weaponization and drug sales that would not exist if wealthy countries were not buyers, there are so many factors to consider, many of which originate outside of the actual country in question. When civil or border wars begin, they are rarely unprovoked and locally generated, but the result of years of exploitation and meddling from foreign interests.
Maybe we don’t want to admit that. And many times, that’s what politicians do, they simply refuse to see what history proves is true. By stating categorically, ‘this is not our fault or problem’ they tap into those people who desperately want to hear that, rather than take responsibility for something they feel they had no part in. Sometimes they genuinely didn’t have a part in it, but oftentimes we are a part of the problem, even if we aren’t willing to admit it. Every time we buy deeply discounted goods from other countries, we condone through our purchase, the maquiladoras where underaged women work for pittance, displaced from their home towns because NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) created a bigger market and eroded the traditional farmers. They now make our Levi’s jeans which we want at a good price, and therein is our part in the exploitation cycle.
True, we don’t have to admit this. We can turn away from the oceans filled with debris cast off from giant containers routinely sunk poisoning the sea and sea life, even as those containers give us the affordable middle-class existence, we feel we are owed. We can turn away from child labour, gunrunning, drug-crimes, all related to things we set in motion from influential countries. We can say if we specifically didn’t sell Mexico a US gun, we’re not responsible for kids being shot; if we didn’t smoke a joint at college, we can’t be responsible for the drug-trade and its fall out; but the situation is far more insidious. No one trade is in isolation, they are all linked. So, when you smoke a joint from weed coming out of Mexico, you’re not just supporting the drug-trade, you’re supporting the heroin trade, the smack trade, the child-prostitute trade etc.
None of us want to own that kind of legacy, so it’s easier to just say: I have nothing to do with it. I find myself thinking that when I want to buy a cheap dress from a chain store that makes things in China, I should be thinking of the worker who made it and how little they were paid. I feel it when I go for a cheap taco for lunch or expect a Mexican local lawn cutter to charge less for their services, there are so-called levels of ‘innocent’ subjugation we permit because they’re enshrined into our system and only the most moral will ever have the strength to protest them. With regard to peace, we also turn a blind eye, instead of holding people responsible, perhaps because we don’t know how to, we condone non-peaceful interventions throughout the world, in the ‘name’ of peace all the time.
With 9/11 the outrage in the US was at an all-time high. It was the perfect timing for launching a war that in any other setting would have been pronounced doomed, foolish and already tried and failed many times. Yet based on emotion and rhetoric that’s exactly what America did and few protested, because fear, fearmongering and inaccurate emotive rhetoric rules the day. Now with social media, this tendency has run amok and very little fact exists so much as knee-jerk reactions, immediate- gratification and social outrage which is more false outrage than accurate. We feel good if we speak out about injustice as we perceive it, cherry picked by social media as the dish du jour and we don’t ever question how much social media manipulates us.
I find those who are not on social media have the vantage point of not being susceptible to this invariable bias. When we go back and check our ‘facts’ as we perceive them, we run into mine fields of websites littered with inaccuracies and who has the time to truly fact check? Today, the media en mass is less accurate, more reactive, more immediacy-based, and we’re junkies of the like button and click bait more than ever before. In fact, I just finished watching a documentary about how social media is specifically set up to emulate the impulses you have when gambling, with one example being that tempting ‘ding’ we receive when getting a message and how hard it is not to check. This is all psychological programming, and it’s deliberate, but who ever considers that and its far-reaching consequence on truth?
As long as we have our new iPhone (criminally expensive), we’re all good. The modern world keeps us too tired and busy to really muster lasting outrage about anything. In fact, we’re gaslighted if we do. Unless of course it’s the sanctioned ‘approved outrage’ that’s flavour of the week. We’re controlled in our responses more than ever before but believe we are freer than we’ve ever been. What a fallacy and what a stellar job those who control us have done. And before you say, “I’m not controlled!” Think about it – really think about it.
So how can we live in a peaceful world if our very notion of peace is perverted by the long-standing agendas of those who really set the schedule? How do we as individuals have any power for change? If we send our cousin off to war with misgivings and we’re told we’re not patriotic if we question his/her service, how can we ever expose the lies behind the notion of ‘peace keeping’ and what modern-notions of peace really mean? Just like Missionaries who originally might have had good intentions but essentially forced their way into cultures and demanded they adhere to a foreign God, we’re going into countries that have problems, possibly historically caused by the West, and thinking we know best. But there is absolutely no proof we do.
In fact, there is ample proof we don’t and we don’t learn. Of course, there are worse offenders. Iran’s shameful human-rights legacy, their determination to build a nuclear weapon are terrifying. But on the flip side, whilst I will never condone their punishment tactics or human-rights violations, I can see why they would wish to have access to a nuclear weapon if others have. What makes one country have the right to be weaponized and not another? Personally, I wouldn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons but I also think it’s wrong of countries like America, the only country to have used (and some would argue, abused) a nuclear weapon, to dictate which countries can have access. It’s also wrong when you consider it is the very countries with weapons and power who often have sold those weapons to the countries, they then sanction for trying to build said weapons.
Ultimately as a peace striving person, I would wish NO country had nuclear weapons but how realistic is that nowadays? I think it’s like the Smallpox scenario. We can all agree to get rid of our Smallpox because we have eradicated Smallpox but what if one country keeps theirs and then has the upper hand over the rest? Can we ever trust other countries? Ideals aside, history tells us human nature is such, we rarely can trust even those closer, even our own governments. So perhaps skepticism and mistrust aren’t so much a peace-breaker as a natural response?
I’ve never felt there could be an ideal of total peace. I don’t think it’s within our purview as humans to achieve that. I hope I’m wrong and I hope the day comes that’s proven. Meanwhile, with America and Russia acting like stupid cold-war frien-amies again, I pause before I trust any country totally, not least my own. As such, we invariably have weapons of mass destruction to act as ‘deterrents’ as a stale-mate to prevent out-and-out war. Whether this will be our undoing, remains to be seen. It only takes one nuclear accident to prove anything nuclear wasn’t such a hot idea. Surely, we’ve learnt this? I would argue the younger generations haven’t because it’s not being taught and it takes me back to the idea of those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. If you believe your generation is ‘better’ and won’t make that mistake, consider how many generations had the same (wrong-headed) concept and the consequences thereafter.
Is there really an answer? I don’t have it But I think if we all stop hiding from reality and try to figure things out, we have a greater chance. Certainly, having a pie-in-the-sky approach doesn’t work anymore than being too reactionary does. At the moment, America is stymied by its polarization of thought and its reluctance to think. Until those change, we’re just a bunch of fussy children wishing bad things didn’t happen. I believe we can be more than that. Even if we don’t attain total peace, we can get closer.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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Camus’ La Peste has never been out of print. In the wake of pandemic that now sweeps the entire world, its sale has seen a surge quite unlike at any other time since its publication in 1947. What else can be a greater proof of the relevance of a work that seems to be an ageless parable of human condition.
The novel, most of which he wrote in confinement, away from his family due to his acute illness, is the story of a town suffering from bubonic plague. But this novel can also be seen as an allegory of human crisis brought about by moral contagion.
Camus belonged to a generation which was born either before or during the First World War, reached adolescence during the worldwide economic depression and turned twenty the year of Hitler’s rise to power. Next they saw the civil war in Spain, the Munich Agreements, the start of another World War in 1939, the fall of France in 1940 and four years of enemy occupation and underground struggle.
All of this, in his opinion, resulted in a human crisis where most people, disillusioned by religion or nationalism and wary of the traditional morality imposed upon them, lived in contradiction. They accepted war and violence which was given to them, which they had never wanted but from the consequences of which they could not escape. It was as if the entire generation was plagued by an indifference which led people to accept human suffering as a banal reality.
In one of his lyrical essays, The Almond Trees (1940), Camus wrote:
“I do not have enough faith in reason to subscribe to a belief in progress or to any philosophy of history. But I do atleast believe that men have never ceased to grow in the knowledge of their destiny. We have not overcome our condition and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as men is to find those few first principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must stitch up what has been torn apart, render justice imaginable in a World which is so obviously unjust, make happiness meaningful for nations poisoned by the misery of this century.”
He believed in human kindness and solidarity. He believed that if in the face of a crisis people could rise and act, not out of some heroic courage expected of them, but with reason and optimism, then it would be possible to reduce human suffering.
Written in the given context, the novel quite pertinently, became a tale of a persisting contradiction and subsequent human actions in overcoming the condition.
“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
In the novel, after initially rejecting the plague, the people of Oran are forced to go into isolation and quarantine. In fact the whole city is closed down and its borders are sealed. There are people suffering from the disease, people in exile – away from their loved ones, people serving those ridden with disease and also people trying to make more money by smuggling goods. Here the depiction of illness, loneliness and separation is quite vivid – much that we can relate to as well at present?
Dr. Rieux, the one who detects the illness, assumes his responsibility and does what he must. He is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things, not out of a notion of valour but out of simple decency and a sense of moral obligation. His character personifies individual moral responsibility essential to make effective public choices in a society. At one point, he says:
“When you see the suffering it brings, you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the Plague.”
Rambert, a young journalist who is exiled in Oran, tries to escape the city initially but later he realises that he shares a common fate with rest of the people and joins in serving those afflicted.
Then one fine day, the plague disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared but not without playing havoc with the lives of people. Later when the people celebrate in the streets of Oran, Dr. Rieux observes:
“The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
Camus knew that even if a contagion, whether biological or moral, ends – one couldn’t be too sure of its absolute extinction. So in the absence of a clear moral lesson from this book, what is it that makes the book still relevant?
In the face of the present pandemic which lurks in the corners of our cities and stares at us from outside the windows of our isolated homes, this book not only brings to our notice the horrors such plagues can inflict but also the human will, solidarity and collective resistance that remain instrumental in overcoming such disasters. It puts our focus back where it should be – on assuming moral responsibility as individuals — on each act of kindness, on goodness which when collective not only helps combat a pandemic but also rouses our alertness lest our laxity make us miss the signs of an impending darkness.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.