YESTERDAY was Armed Forces Day. A difficult day for those of us committed to active non-violence, pacifism and objection to what is defined as ‘militarism’. I do not dissent from this last term, but I acknowledge its ambiguity. At present, this concept is part of my thinking but as I hope that this piece will make clear, subject to evolution.
Three pieces of wisdom inform my current position. The first – as might be expected – is from the tradition of the Society of Friends (Quakers), the second from a serving soldier with whom I am grateful to be developing a mutually respectful online friendship, and the third from an American theologian.
Firstly, then, this is from the Public statement of the Yearly Meeting of Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1987: “We do not have a blueprint for peace that spells out every stepping stone towards the goal that we share. In any particular situation, a variety of personal decisions could be made with integrity. We may disagree with the views and actions of the politician or the soldier who opts for a military solution, but we still respect and cherish the person. What we call for in this statement is a commitment to make the building of peace a priority and to make opposition to war absolute.”
The second is from Sgt Maj Denis Tingay, formerly a combat medic and now an army welfare practitioner, whom I quote with his permission: “Most soldiers I know, and all of their loved ones, are pacifists. Not armchair pacifists who believe that their freedoms were given to them by the elves and pixies, but normal folk who understand pacifism at an existential level. Knock on any door in the family quarter of a military base and it will be answered by someone for whom pacifism is a deep, abiding and fearful value. If history teaches us anything, it’s that peace and freedom come at a wretched cost.”
So, with these words in mind, I move to what it is that disturbs me about Armed Forces Day. I value the courage, skills and committent of the men and iwomen of our Armed Forces. I will venture to say that all Quakers will join with the view that we desire wholeheartedly to keep them from harm.
But the presentation of Armed Forces Day as family entertainment troubles me deeply. Young children, who can have no concept of the horrors of war, nor of the generational trauma, deformation and hatred it causes, are invited to sit at the controls of weapons systems as though they were computer games. Excitement without responsibility is immoral and destructive. Keep in mind that the UK is the only European nation which permits military recruitment under the age of 18. That children are “wax to receive, and marble to retain” confers a huge responsibility. There is a similar working upon unexamined feelings to be found in the military pageantry which is on display during this day and which we admired during the coronation. Conflicting perceptions cannot be pushed aside. They must surely provide prompts for ongoing discernment as to outward display and its unintended consequences.
It is realistic to say that humankind has not yet developed a rational response to armed conflict. I sense that this will take a long time and that the process is not helped by the lack of imagination cited here by the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas: “As long as it is assumed that war is always an available option we will not be forced to imagine any alternative to war.”
So, let us try to exercise the imagination of greater investment – both financial and ethical – in those alternatives of peace education, diplomacy, dialogue and above all, of courage and discernment from politicians to recognise and seize those critical moments in which a different path to that of armed force might be followed.
There is too much at stake, for civilian populations and for the military personnel who pay such a high price for failure for us to be seduced by “the easy speeches which comfort cruel men.”
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, The Friend and Reform, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen