“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 10 May 2013

"Oh What A Lovely War!"

Last night, I went to see Oh What A Lovely War, the 1963 play by Joan Littlewood. The programme told me that it was first performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in London. The programme notes continue: "It recalls the horrors of World War I through the humour and frivolity of a seaside pier show, mixing famous British war songs with gags and dances, and sets hilarious clowning against shocking factual documentation of the war's casualties. Its blatant denunciation of the incompetence of political leaders during World War I, depicting their readiness to sacrifice the common man to achieve their own political ends is shocking in its horrific results."

It was performed by our local village drama group, Group Eight, and they really surpassed themselves. Usually, they do either a comedy of manners or a detective story at this time of year, and it was inspiring to see how they rose to the challenge of doing something deeper and darker. I found it incredibly moving. The set was fairly simple, and the action took place either side of and in front of a screen, on which was projected the horrifying statistics of the actual war. It was very effective.

People's view of war changes over time. When World War I ended, the official view, according to Reg Grant, author of Armistice 1918, "was that it had been a tragic experience, but also one steeped with heroism and a sense of noble duty fulfilled ... This view did not exclude a recognition of the horrors suffered by the men at the front, but saw the suffering as justified by a high purpose."

There is nothing like a common cause to pull people together, and to bring out the best in them. Look at the saturation bombing during World War II. Its purpose, according to Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris was "to scourge the Third Reich from end to end. We are bombing Germany city by city and ever more terribly in order to make it impossible for her to go on with the war. That is our object, and we shall pursue it relentlessly." The Third Reich had similar ideas about Britain.

And did it work? Of course not. Everyone was united in diversity and became even more determined to hang on and beat the enemy. Morale was high, in spite of rationing and propaganda. The government-controlled media made sure that their messages would stiffen people's resolve to endure. The situation is much the same in Afghanistan today.

In times of peace, the views of the majority can be very different. For example, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a wave of anti-war feeling, and the "Great War" came to be seen as a senseless waste of human life, (as was shown so graphically in the play last night) rather than heroic sacrifice. In 1933, the Oxford Union voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposal that "this House will not fight for King and Country." This caused a great stir, because Oxford students were an elite in Britain, and were the sort of people who would be expected to form the officer class in time of war. Which of course, six years later, they did.

Like most people nowadays, I believe that World War I was so much futile slaughter, and that most of the wars since World War II have been fought on immoral grounds. But World War II is more difficult to decide about. Most people would say "Well Hitler had to be stopped, didn't he?" Yes, but would the Nazi party have come to power if the Treaty of Versailles hadn't been such a short-sighted and vengeful document? I do sometimes wonder whether we would have been any better if we had had to endure the appalling conditions the Germans did in the decade after the First World War ended.

The common humanity of humankind should be an overarching bond that prevents war. After the terrible events of 9/11, we saw this in action - people all over the world of whatever political complexion were united in horror at the toll of death and damage. We just need to be reminded of our common humanity. Often.

Surely there are better ways of resisting evil? Look at the Norwegians and their non-violent resistance during World War II. Look at Mahatma Gandhi. Look at modern day prisoners of conscience. Look at the women of Northern Ireland. Look at the women of Greenham Common. Look at Nelson Mandela. Look at pressure groups such as Global Zero, which is campaigning for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. If only enough people would take the trouble to think for themselves and to see past the accepted Government line, I am sure that the world could become a more peaceful place. But it seems that retribution is seen to be more important than peace in most people's minds. Why are revenge  and the need for reparation the first things that anyone thinks of if they are injured? Or is it me? Am I just an idealistic fool?

The thing that the play last night really brought home to me is that it is the responsibility of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead. It is the job of anyone who is horrified by the futility and slaughter of war to attempt to influence their government and fellow citizens to work towards a more peaceful, happier world, in which war would no longer be necessary. And I know that faith groups and peace organisations the world over are trying to do this - we just all need to work together, and to keep at it, until humankind finally realises that peace is so much better than war, for everyone.

Most wars are allegedly fought to bring peace - a most ingenious paradox! We should remember the dead, but also pledge ourselves to make our world a better place - to end all wars, to relieve world debt (which would be so much easier if we weren't spending all that money on weaponry), to feed the hungry, to find cures for diseases such as cancer and AIDS, to stop destroying our environment. It is still a beautiful planet, or it could be, if we could only learn to live together in peace.