Pacifism and World War Two

After the VE Day anniversary celebrations, can a pacifist argue that the second world war should not have been fought? Yes. It was not necessary.

WWII did not prevent the Holocaust. It killed sixty million human beings. It involved atrocities by the Allies, such as the fire-bombing of Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo. Nuclear weapons were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, starting the nuclear arms race which continues today.

The world war is not clearly better than any imaginable alternative. It depends when you start: had Germany not been humiliated and impoverished by the Treaty of Versailles, it might have developed other leadership.

Well-prepared civil resistance in the countries Hitler occupied could have made his control extremely difficult. Norwegian teachers refused to teach the Nazi curriculum. Dutch and French citizens hid Jews. Do not dismiss the possibility that a well-prepared population could defend their rights and freedoms, and protect each other non-violently.

Gandhi wrote, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent”. How might a population resist?

One of the reasons for the death camps was that troops’ combat fitness is damaged by mass murder of unarmed civilians. The Nazis had already used gas to murder disabled people, before this was halted by protests from the German public. Oppressors, and particularly their lowest-ranking soldiers, lose the will to kill. The Solidarity union protested, and could not be put down. Eventually, the people took the Berlin Wall down, when the troops would no longer fire on them; though many were murdered before that day.

In the Occupied Territories, International Accompaniers witness life under occupation and give publicity to human rights abuses. While the English-speaking world was free, Nazi oppression of occupied countries would have come at a cost.

Here is the Berghof Handbook, continually updated articles and resources for those engaged in transforming violent ethnic conflict. Conflict may arise over scarce resources, quickly polarising different groups: here is the Wajir Story, of how inter-clan violence spread at a time of severe drought. A group of women, seeing that their market trading had become impossible, got together to ensure peaceful trading could be resumed. Inspired by this, clan elders agreed to prevent the violence of their own clans, and brought it to an end.Sword into Ploughshares

People flourish when we co-operate. People can be brought to see that. All this comes from the wonderful Swarthmore Lecture by Diana Francis, Faith, Power and Peace, also in a book.


Alan Turing

Oscar and BosieAlan Turing should not have been pardoned for his conviction for gross indecency.

“Gross indecency” was a new crime in 1885. Anal intercourse had been a capital offence until 1861, but the difficulty was proving it: how to show the anus had been penetrated? “Gross indecency” was easier to prosecute. It was any sexual activity between men. It was a blackmailer’s charter.

In 1967, sexual activity between men was partially decriminalised in England. If two men, both over 21, alone together in a private place had consensual sexual activity, this was lawful. This reads like an exception to the rule rather than a full decriminalising.

Discrimination at work on the ground of sexual orientation became an actionable wrong in 2004, and equal marriage is expected on 29 March in England. That is what vindicates Alan Turing: we accept that there is nothing wrong with gay lovemaking. Pardoning Alan Turing because he is famous, or because he shortened the second world war, or because of the Turing Test, implies that we accept that the anonymous gay men whose lives were ruined by prosecution between 1885 and 1967 were rightly prosecuted. It also implies that someone thinks driving Turing to suicide is somehow made all right by a late pardon.

We know that the law in the past was monstrous. The Law of England, except in a few comparatively unimportant particulars, Kenneth Williamsappears to come almost as near to perfection as can be expected in any human institutions said the Real Property Commissioners in 1830, when women’s property was in the custody of their fathers or husbands, and there was slavery in the Colonies though not England itself. 306 soldiers shot for cowardice or desertion in world war one, 16m deaths in total, all bad, pardons don’t really make it even slightly better.

Meanwhile, there are 50,000 men in Britain with a criminal record for Gross Indecency for acts which would not be criminal, now, such as sex below the age of 21 or 18. There, a pardon would make a difference.

Sentimentality about the war is the reason for it, that fabled time when plucky little Blighty were unequivocally the Goodies, alone against the darkness, who triumphed at huge cost: debt higher as a proportion of GNP than now, as well as all the deaths.

So it goes

Slaughterhouse five, by Kurt Vonnegut, presents ways of living with the Dresden bombing- and the Holocaust, and even the end of the Universe. It may even be sufficient.

Billy Pilgrim is a prisoner of war during the Dresden bombing, and later is taken by the Trafalmadoreans in their flying saucer, for exhibition in their zoo. Trafalmadoreans experience time non-linearly, being aware of past and future. The novel may illustrate this by showing Billy travelling in time, between his time in Germany and before and after, including his death- but then, I experience the book in a linear fashion which allows me to absorb its lessons in the order the writer wishes. It also includes a man boasting of torturing a dog to death, and some good jokes.

How can we live with these things? “So it goes”, says Vonnegut, meaning “Shit happens”, or something. Millions of lice are killed in the de-lousing process, and 135,000 people in the Dresden bombing. So it goes.

That figure is inaccurate: Dresden city council in 2010 stated the figure was between 22,700 and 25,000. So, does that make it less bad? Or do we look to motive- to destroy a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East or German civilian morale? Or just relative fame: the Tokyo bombing of 9 March 1945 killed 83,793 people, and the Hiroshima bomb 71,379.

So it goes. It happens. Live with it. If you can contemplate history as a single whole, rather than as discrete monstrous horrors, there are good bits too. Some of the suffering is from ignorance. Billy Pilgrim causes great suffering to two horses through ignorance, and weeps when he is told of it.

Or possibly, it is a call to be better. a way for Vonnegut to “impress upon readers that we keep making the same mistake and it doesn’t have to be that way,” says a Vonnegut partisan. That was not how I experienced it: in it, I contemplated horror, and contemplated it again, enjoyed the jokes, and while I am against militarism because the army kills people and destroys things, I don’t feel more motivated to oppose it.

It is on this list of “35 books you must read in your lifetime” which includes seven books about war, more in which war is incidental, several dystopias, and A short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson as a token glimpse of what good people are capable of. There have been several attempts to ban it or remove it from school libraries: the US supreme court considered when a New York school board removed it with eight other books as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy,” and concluded that “[i]t is our duty, our moral obligation, to protect the children in our schools from this moral danger as surely as from physical and medical dangers.” The court concluded that the school board could not remove the book from its library once it was there for these reasons.

“Filthy”. It is an anti-thriller: Billy suffers no suspense or fear because he knows what will be next, and goes happily enough to where he will be murdered because (as a time traveller) that does not end his experience. While the zoo has a male and female human exhibit, they are naked and observed, there is no attempt to arouse or disgust the reader. Some novels have sex scenes or suspense to produce a sexual or emotional response in the reader, and this does not. We are left with the jokes, and the Dresden bombing.

Mentioning the War

I look at these photos and I feel love, pride, and wonder that my father could fly operations. At the funeral, there were a few from the Bomber Command Association to pay their respects.

Even if he looks a bit unhappy here.

Then they went round to the tail. The war was over in Europe, though Hiroshima had not yet been bombed and it was possible that 218 squadron would be posted to the far east, and they look playful- especially him, between his machine guns. Mild kudos to whoever can identify the pilot- comment, and say why.

Lanc tail 2

Then- oh, wow.

Off duty

I don’t recall seeing this one before, but I love the eye contact. He must have come out with a great line to evoke that reaction.

We mention the War too much. Our TV dramas are still set in it, and we mark endless anniversaries- if every five years is significant, then all the time is an anniversary of something in WWII. Next year is the centenary of the start of WWI, and in November is Remembrance Sunday.

Government uses this interest to justify vast military spending: two new aircraft carriers, and a new nuclear playset budgeted at £100,000,000,000 and hardly likely to come in so cheap. Would we really destroy life on Earth, even if the Americans let us? And there is mawkish sentimentality (well, sentimentality has to be “mawkish”, even if nothing else is) around “doing their bit”, “all pulling together”. We remain British.

training-group photo

Added: I love The Aircrew Dictionary, and particularly “as useless as Anne Frank’s drumkit” as a representative sample of its black humour.

Stiff upper lip public reaction to the death of Diana astounded me. I was not entirely alone. I remember sharing in the office our incomprehension, and disapproval of the mawkishness. We looked upon mass hysteria unmoved. And- Britain mourned, publicly, weeping in the streets, dumping flowers in huge piles, and creating a Princess Diana Memorial Garden only a few yards from my office.

When I was 16, Jane’s parents moved away as her Dad had another job, and her best friend Jackie started crying. Soon, all the girls in my year were crying, even those who had hardly known Jane. The boys and I looked on bewildered.

Ian Hislop, in his programme “Stiff Upper Lip, an emotional history of Britain”, pointed to the visible stoicism of Diana’s sons, aged 9 and 15, in her funeral procession. Private Eye mocked the mourners, but it was the moment where Britain as a whole grew more in touch with our emotions, able to perceive and express them. It was a moment of maturing. The stoicism of Keep Calm and Carry On is wonderful and necessary, but not when it means repressing emotions: I need to perceive and integrate them.

I have only created an illusion of stoicism in the past by suppressing my emotions, and I cannot suppress them any more. I doubt I ever worked at my full potential, I gave too much energy to holding those emotional reactions in check, and thought myself Worthless, only of value for what I might achieve. And anything I achieved was only to be expected, but anything which did not go my way was My Fault and Very Bad. I could not carry on that way, and while I have seen this as failure and falling away, I choose to see it as the beginnings of a better way of being. Repression was the only way I knew. but I was getting steadily worse at it, crying in the tribunal waiting room in 2004.

How do I deal with my feelings? I repress them. That was my habitual way, and is even now an instinctive way, and so I still try it sometimes; and I still feel that repression is good and the right way to behave.

I want to develop a Stoic response, conscious of the feeling, accepting and allowing it, while Carrying On- a homunculus in my torso weeps and screams while I hold her and care for her, and do what I have to do. I am practising this. I have not perfected it, yet, but I am getting better.

I have been ashamed at how much we “mention the war”. It is sixty years since, have we nothing to be proud of since then? But- we mention the war because we have a right to be proud of it, even if those who served are dead, or over 86. And, I think we seek in ourselves that stoic keeping calm and carrying on. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was never published. It was kept in case of an invasion or similar catastrophe, third in the sequence illustrated here.

Thanks to Questrix for this wonderful spiritual practice: “Gam zu l’tovah: Even this could possibly be for the good”. This is also different from suppression: I have my first reaction, but I do not cling to it, it is not the end. Similarly, STEB.

Vernon Scannell

The poet Vernon Scannell was in North Africa in 1942. He was lying on the ground beside an officer, under fire. When he felt able to look around, the officer had scarpered. Scannell later found that the officer had been sent back to Blighty, to a mental hospital.

Shortly after, Scannell himself got into a lorry and started driving. Foolish, really. He did not shave, and when he was asked his business he could not give a soldierly answer, so got arrested. He was, not being an officer, sent to a prison in North Africa. Every day the men carted a huge pile of sand from one corner of the parade ground to the opposite corner. The next day, they took it back. In solitary confinement, he was given a hunk of bread in the morning. He kept some of it for later, and was disciplined for “hoarding food”.

When the authorities sought volunteers to fight in Europe among the prisoners, Scannell volunteered, and got out. He went to a training camp. There was a young man there, very gung-ho, whom Scannell gives the pseudonym Victor Denham. He was always on about how he would kill Jerries, but when the invasion came he collapsed weeping and raving, and also had to be sent home. Scannell’s opinion of him is shown in the initials he gave him.

When Scannell got home, he could not be bothered waiting for demob, so went on the run again until a general pardon in the 1950s.

Scannell’s poetry has the humour of the squaddie, trapped in a world he did not create.

What did you do in the war, Daddee?
Lots of jankers, son.

There is not a lot of respect for the officers, the transvestite brigadier, the bastards who put you on a charge. Some are hypocrites:

There’s only two men in this mob-
And this you ought to know-
Who can catch pox from toilet seats:
The Chaplain and MO.

But there is one poem of his which moves me to tears: “Sentences”, from Funeral Games. He explains that soldiers serving sentences in military prisons are officially referred to and addressed as SUS’s- Soldiers Under Sentence.

Who spiked the water at the wedding
held in the Sergeants’ Mess?
We all know who the fellow was:

And so, on for twelve verses.


Who swallowed wine and pissed out water
Couldn’t wake up when Reveille was blown,
Who screwed Colonel Jairus’s daughter
Ate ten men’s rations, all on his own,
Robbed the blind, and beat up cripples,
Flogged his donkey right to the bone?

Johnny Evans, he was the fellow,
Ended up high against the bloodshot sky,
Johnny Evans, the barrack room cowboy,
Arms stretched out like a PTI.
He, and another old Janker-wallah,
One each side of the man who cried
A loud reproach to his stone-deaf father
And promised Johnny, before he died,
A place that night in the Officers’ Mess,
He, Johnny Evans, was a soldier under sentence,

Scannell is now out of print.

In the dinghy

If you ditch your kite in the drink, you are liable to go west, unless you get, literally, in the dinghy. My father was a tail end charlie in Lancasters, a fact of which, for a pacifist, I am inordinately proud. I particularly like that bit of WWII RAF slang, “in the dinghy”, all right for now. You don’t know whether you will be picked up, you don’t know whether you will be picked up by your side, but at least you are out of the water.

I have cited wiktionary, which is a good list of the gallows humour of the Tommy, but the problem with that as an authority is that the source was me. Another page quotes wiktionary, so my tale is spreading slowly. This page quotes a longer phrase, in the third message, by cliffnemo. “I’m in the dinghy Jack, let go the painter” is a Googlewhack. So the memory of the daughter of one rear-gunner keeps the phrase alive. Perhaps it was only that squadron, or that crew.

Still, it is a wonderful phrase. All right for the moment. Everything is alright. Dunno what comes next. The worst that could happen is quite ghastly, but-

Charlie, often right charlie or proper charlie, is an outdated synonym for coof, eedjit, wally, plonker, or prat. So called because he could not squeeze into his gun turret without taking off his parachute, and fighters coming in from behind might hit him first.

A woman in my office used the word “gen”, which I got from Biggles books as a child. I like the word. It sounds manly in a pipesmoking, Baden-Powell sort of way.

I think my father has lost his own crew photo in a housemoving. He did not say much about the war until the 1990s, when he joined the Bomber Command Association, and started attending squadron reunions. He was delighted by these, seeing men with whom he had shared that experience. There were regular gatherings in Edinburgh, but now these have stopped: at 87, my father is one of the youngest terrorfliegers. When the statue of Bomber Harris was erected, there were protests, while all he did was kill people and destroy things, which is what military forces do. That statue honours my father’s ordinary courage. Harris, in February 1945:

Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers.  To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.

The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East.  It is now none of these things.