Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To End All Wars

You are the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium in 1914. You are a campaigning woman, a socialist, a suffragette and a pacifist.

What do you have in common? You are brother and sister and share a deep, abiding affection even as you discount each other's opinions.

The central conceit of Adam Hochschild's book, 'To End All Wars' is to explore such divided loyalties in response to the First World War. He focuses on the British response and weaves detailed, particular biographies through a brush stroke account of that terrible conflict.

The book captures, but does not explain, how the war came to be fought with such opening enthusiasm and the continuous commitment to the sacrifice of thousands upon thousands. It is compellingly strange this euphoria of war and how many, opposed to it in concept, were converted. The ecstasy of belonging seduced in quite remarkable ways. Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette, went from branding war (in the pre-war years) a male conceit, wasteful and ridiculous, to a violent patriotic support of the engulfing conflict. This may have been part pragmatic - winning the women's vote by displaying their patriotic support for war - but the violence of her support betrayed other, deeper emotions.

But the book's deepest sympathy is retained for those whose conviction withstood the wave of euphoria and held fast to the principles of peace and a more reasoned solidarity.

You realize that solidarity for many was embedded in socialism: a seeking after a just order and one of Hochchild's key protagonist is the veteran Labour leader, Keir Hardie, whose dream of solidarity was shattered by the war, stripping him of his health and leading to his death.

In the arid field of current political debate, his life of commitment and sacrifice is a rebuke. Hardie's was a Christian socialism and it is with sadness that I recognize that it is a strand of political thought that is now marginal at best and yet what heirs of thought it has in its history.

It struck me that we resist our capacity to be carried away by the lie of conflict only by embracing a reasoned path towards a shared solidarity and the passion to commit to it and yet something other: the imagination that creates a common empathy. This is a demanding discipline that is why a genuine socialism (to amend a quote of the monk Thomas Merton) may only be possible in a monastery (for which read an intentional community).

It is securing paths towards intentional communities that is one way forward towards peace. It is noticeable that those that bore a black and white version of the world; however, subtly expressed (like Kipling's), even, as in the case of Pankhurst, one that could flip over were seduced by the over and against solidarity of war. Whereas, in contrast, those whose thought dwelt in the complexity of colour were better inoculated against its seductive stridency.


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