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No more war heroes

War & Peace

Having lived in three-quarters of the years of the twentieth century, I share with many of my generation a suspicion of some of the generalizations being made about the experience of these years. Fashionable preoccupations rarely tell the whole story. Throughout my lifetime there have been alternative voices which have questioned the mainstream ideologies and, in some cases, helped to change their direction.

One area in which great changes have occurred during the century is in the public attitude to war and peace. The vocabulary in which war is spoken about has ceased to be one of courage, patriotism and national pride and has instead become one of failure or of unimaginable disaster. The ‘War Office’ has in general become the ‘Ministry of Defence’; the greatest destructive weapons ever invented have become ‘deterrents’. Most people, I think, go out of this century with a view of the military ‘virtues’, of the place of war in civilized society, fundamentally different from that of the nineteenth century and earlier.

Many factors have helped to change public attitudes to war and peace, but organized peace movements have certainly played a major part. Throughout my adult life I and my family have been actively involved in movements set up deliberately to campaign for the ending of war as a means of solving disputes between nations. The growth of such movements and of public support for them has undoubtedly been one of the key phenomena of this century.

In my own family – a family of artisans and tradespeople – the two World Wars involved three generations. My grandfather, a merchant-navy officer, died serving on a minesweeper in 1916; my father and his four brothers served in the trenches for all or part of the First World War; another close relative served as a fighter pilot and emerged with shattered nerves while two others were killed in the land warfare between 1914 and 1918. In the Second World War four male relatives lost their lives. This is a fairly typical story for a European family in the twentieth century.

The inventor of dynamite at the end of the nineteenth century believed that his invention would outlaw war, since the devastation it could produce would make any major outbreak destructive beyond imagination. After 1918 the same view was held about aerial warfare. My childhood was dominated by the conviction that a major war would end up wiping out the cities of the industrial world. Since 1945 the possibility of nuclear annihilation has seemed to make war between the great powers an act of collective suicide. These factors alone have contributed to a revulsion against large-scale military adventures among thinking people in all nations – though the world is unquestionably still full of national, ethnic and political causes whose supporters see a resort to bullets and bombs as the only means of gaining their ends.

Secular transnational peace movements are developments unique to the twentieth century. For many centuries there have been religions and sects which forswore violence. There have also been anti-military ideologies, such as the belief of the nineteenth-century free-traders that trade between nations was a better way of establishing domination and spreading ‘civilization’ than was military conquest.

Halfway through the century admiration for the military virtues started to lose their hold on people's imagination

But the first real peace movements arose out of organized labour’s protest against militarism and imperialism in Europe and North America in the early years of the twentieth century. The social-democratic parties of the Second International preached the unity of interest between working people throughout the world, and saw war between the great imperial powers as likely to benefit only capitalist profit. The outbreak of European war in 1914, however, saw the fracture of international workers’ organizations as most members of labour movements lined up behind their own national government. Those who did not, whose conscientious objection was political rather than religious, were generally treated harshly.

The grim experience of the First World War – the futility and barbarity of which has echoed right through to the end of the century – led to a worldwide determination to make another such conflict impossible. This determination had three main strands. The first was the presence in mainstream politics of those who believed in the possibility of resolving conflict by negotiation. The hopes of these people became vested in the League of Nations: throughout the world support for the League came mainly from social-democratic parties.

The second key influence on opinion was the great flowering of creative art which produced poems, novels, plays, films and paintings depicting the horror and futility of war. The peace movements which grew up between the World Wars emerged from a climate in which the major artistic talents – from the poet Wilfrid Owen to the painter Pablo Picasso – were addressing this same cause.

But the third influence lay in the work of organized peace movements. In the West the inter-war years saw the development of organizations supporting international negotiation and of movements based on personal witness and commitment. Gandhi’s practice of non-violent civil disobedience had a particularly powerful effect. In Britain, for example, support for non-violence was institutionalized in the Peace Pledge Union. Founded in the early 1930s, all its members signed a personal pledge to refuse to take up arms in any cause, believing all violence inevitably provokes counter-violence.

The two strands of peace action in the 1930s were pacifism and collective security. They were not mutually exclusive but as the decade went on and Fascism and Nazism gained in power and support, the purely pacifist numbers declined. My older brother and most of his friends who had signed the peace pledge were persuaded by the Spanish Civil War of the need for armed resistance. While some of his group remained pacifists and were conscientious objectors in 1939, others went to Spain to fight against Franco’s Fascists – where one of them, Ken Bond, was killed – and the majority joined the armed forces on the outbreak of war with Germany. Many of them, including my brother, were killed in action, but they believed that the war they were fighting was unavoidable.

The Second World War involved shattering but very different experiences in almost every country in the world. The victors as well as the vanquished suffered enormous loss and destruction and carried into the post-War years memories of wholesale destruction and of actions by which all humanity was shamed. Saturation bombing; nuclear devastation; the destruction of whole communities and millions of human lives: all these made the determination to avoid any other such conflict universal.

Perhaps it was at this point, halfway through the century, that it became possible to say that admiration for the military virtues had lost its hold on people’s imagination. The survivors were the people who had kept their heads down; the heroes were the unarmed or lightly armed partisan and resistance forces who had held conventional military power at bay. Generals who owed their victory to the mass bombing of civilians may have been seen as necessary evils in an all-out combat, but they were not the nations’ heroes.

When the War ended in 1945 I was a member of the Communist Party. I married a fellow communist, EP Thompson, who had fought in Africa and Italy and had lost a much-loved brother, a liaison officer with the Bulgarian partisans. We shared a determination to work actively against the possibility of another war – through the development of European co-operation and the liberation of colonial peoples.

One of the first things we did together was to join the British Brigade for a summer working on building a youth railway in Yugoslavia. The experience of meeting people of our generation from Eastern as well as from Western Europe intensified a shared sense of purpose; we were a generation fully aware of how close we had been to an even more disastrous outcome. In the early years of the Cold War, the organized peace movements were led by the Communist parties throughout the West. They were agreed in seeing the main threat to peace as coming from attempts at world control by the US Government, and to an extent were instruments of Soviet foreign policy.

Within the world peace movement we were often in opposition to our own party and its leaders over their subservience to Soviet policy. The Soviet attitude towards the Eastern European states became increasingly authoritarian and many of the young people with whom we had worked in the immediate post-War years soon became victims or dissidents. Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin in the spring of 1956 were followed quickly in the autumn of that year by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Large numbers of Communists broke with their parties and attempted to build an alliance for peace among the countries in the world not aligned with either the US or the Soviet Union.

‘Battlefield’ nuclear weapons would have been used in some conflicts were it not for the fear of public protest and condemnation

By then a non-Communist peace movement was gaining strength and confidence. The emergence of a post-Second World War era dominated by two superpowers – each with nuclear weapons and containing a military-industrial complex of a scale way beyond the capacity of any other state – convinced world opinion that a clash between these two powers must inevitably lead to the destruction of most of what we regard as civilization.

There has not been such a clash, and it is sometimes suggested that this is a major achievement of our century. Nevertheless there has not been a year since the end of the Second World War in which wars have not been fought on some part of the globe. These ‘lesser’ wars are lesser only in comparison with the enormity of the nuclear danger, since many of them involve weaponry more destructive and sophisticated than anything used in Europe in either 1914-18 or 1939-45. Wars have disrupted the production of food and other necessities, have spread famine and disease and left areas of the world uninhabitable. There can be no small wars in the modern world.

How far have post-1950 peace movements helped to reduce or avoid war? The straightforward demand for non-violent solutions to disputes between nations has probably had little direct impact.

But the major peace movements of this half-century have used non-violent forms of civil disobedience to great effect. The US campaign against the war in Vietnam gained world prominence through its vast non-violent demonstrations rather than through the small-scale violence of some activists. Although the idea of personal pledges against taking up arms has lost its resonance in a world in which the worst possible destruction can be released by the pressure of a few men’s thumbs, the idea of mass non-violent public protest has become the most effective strategy for anti-war and anti-nuclear movements.

Both the campaign in 1950s Britain against the Suez adventure and the massive US anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the l960s had some success in ending hostilities and – perhaps even more importantly – aroused a powerful resistance, particularly among the young, against the ideology and rhetoric of militarism. Movements calling for nuclear-weapon-free zones – like those declared by New Zealand and South Pacific nations in the 1980s – and for the unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons by the ‘minor’ nuclear powers, involved millions of people all over the world.

My own peace activism was in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and European Nuclear Disarmament (END) of which my husband Edward was a major spokesperson. They involved huge sectors of the centre and left of the political spectrum, calling for reduction of nuclear weapons by East and West, and the ending of the rhetoric of the Cold War. Inevitably we put together peace with citizens’ rights. The END manifesto was signed by some brave Soviet and East European dissidents, a number of whom later became leaders of the ‘velvet revolutions’ that swept the region after 1989.

How much world peace movements contributed to the end of the Cold War is still being debated. A stronger united movement of the left and centre that gave equal importance to peace and civil rights, could have given more confidence to the civil-rights movement in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Perhaps under such conditions the rampant free marketeers that now dominate the region would have had less room for manoeuvre when the Soviet empire began to break up.

But peace movements have certainly contributed in one key respect. In the early years of the Vietnam conflict American leaders were saying that it was necessary to persuade the public that nuclear weapons were like rather stronger ‘conventional’ weapons. This kind of rhetoric could surely have no place in political discourse today. Mass peace demonstrations throughout the world have led politicians to realize that resorting to nuclear weapons would arouse a hostile public response which could force them out of power. I am convinced that ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons would have been used in some conflicts were it not for the fear of public protest – and if this were the only achievement of the peace movement it would be a hugely significant one.

In other ways, however, the rhetoric of military action seems to have made a comeback in the liberal democracies – as with the ‘macho’ stance adopted by the US and Britain in relation to Iraq. Perhaps each generation needs some experience of war to break through the fictions of political rhetoric. Teaching lessons to dictators, punishing terrorists, re-establishing legitimate frontiers and other such ‘moral’ reasons for military action are all around us as the century ends. The slow processes of negotiation and non-violent resolution of conflict seem in this respect as far from superseding war as they did at the century’s outset.

*Dorothy Thompson* lectured in social history at Birmingham University, England, until her retirement. She is still active in the peace movement.

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