A row of caged, angry dogs couldn’t do much harm to each other, but set them free and they might just rip each other to shreds. So are they at peace in their captive state? Apologies for such a simple metaphor, but I hope it shows my problem with our common concept of peace being ‘not war’. It’s more than that isn’t it? Something else that we can’t quite put our finger on…
For now anyway, 21st September, aka Peace Day, is the day of ‘not war’. It has been since 2002 when the UN made it so. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has asked groups and states engaged in armed conflict to observe a 24-hour ceasefire today. If we can put a hold on aggression and violence for one day he says, ‘we can imagine how much more is possible.’ How much more what though? How much more ‘not war’?
I’m being picky. But peace has become a divisive issue in the UK, it warrants a little investigation. Jeremy Corbyn prefers to wear a white poppy on Remembrance Day, rather than a red one. This débâcle has touched a nerve that the compromise of a pink poppy could not fix. The red one says, I remember and honour the fallen of the armed forces who died at war. The white one says the same and also ‘should it never happen again, as a pacifist, I oppose violent conflict.’ Here the ‘not war’ premise becomes a little too extreme for our British taste. If Corbyn believes it that’s fine, but he shouldn’t push his political message at the cost of flouting the reverent and accepted convention of memorial that is the red poppy.
Oh dear, peace has become a taboo. Beware one and all of aggressive displays of pacifism. There’s a time and a place for it, and it’s not the day on which we remember the pain, suffering and loss of two world wars, apparently.
Maybe it goes without saying that the process of remembering is different for each person and what they do actually know, remember and feel about war. Politician and peace campaigner Tony Benn opposed military strikes on Iraq in 1998, accusing modern Britain of not being able to fathom the real horrors of violent conflict:
“What fools we are to live in a generation for which war is a computer game for our children and just an interesting little Channel 4 news item!”
For those of us who don’t know or remember the reality of war then ‘not war’ lacks the automatic gravity it has for a veteran or someone displaced by conflict, for example. Dare I say, it feels almost empty and theoretical in comparison to what it would mean to them.
No wonder, the modern peace concept is cracking under the pressure of hardly any scrutiny.
The Dalai Lama and his fellow peace conspirator Lord Rowan Williams are promoting a seemingly simple message that might just offer some hope for a unifying concept. Lord Williams told me that when it comes to peace:
“We need to be aware of our common humanity.”
Sounds good. I could agree with them on that. He went on:
“There’s no security for one person or community without consideration for everyone else’s well-being at the same time.”
I can see why Lord Williams said that this message needs to run through the education system from the earliest point possible. Because if you say it to an older, more cynical type (or just me playing devil’s advocate) the next question would be:
“Hold on, are you saying that to live in peace I should seek happiness for all my enemies?!”
As an idea it feels positive and pragmatic yet distant and unrealistic too. So today I will be imagining it closer. What would a world based on our common humanity look and feel like? How would my own life be different? Far-fetched as the end goal is, this exercise in imagining it closer helps to fill some of the gaps left by the peace-as-not-war concept. I can see in that world why we would have done everything in our power to avoid violent conflict. It helps envision the ‘more’ that Ban Ki Moon is asking for.