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Two popular and long-established collections of  war poetry of the
First World War

Minds at War
A comprehensive
anthology of poetry of the First World War. All the greatest war poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and war poems of over 70 other notable poets. All set in the context of the poets' lives and historical records. With historic photographs and cartoons.  Edited by David Roberts.
 400 pages £15-99 (UK)

Out in the Dark
Anthology of
First World War poetry recommended for students and the general reader.
19 poems by
Wilfred Owen
, 27 by Siegfried Sassoon and over 90 more war poems by 45 significant poets including women writers. Contextual information and basic notes on many poems. Illustrated.  Edited by David Roberts.
185 pages - £10-99 (UK)

Falklands War Poetry cover

What do We Mean When We Speak of Peace?

Talk presented to Worthing Unitarians, 20th June 2010 (Revised July 2010)

By Francis Clark-Lowes

The War Poetry Website

Broadly speaking there are two meanings of the word peace. The first is roughly synonymous with ‘peacefulness’ or ‘peace and quiet’. The other is the absence of war. These two conceptions are not incompatible, but they are distinct. I will have something to say about both of them, but I will be primarily concerned with the absence of war, and for most of my talk I will assume that this is what the vast majority of people want.

My own position arises, of course, out of the particular circumstances of own my life:

1. Both my parents were inclined towards pacifism, though they were not convinced pacifists.
2. Being brought up a vegetarian posed a number of interesting moral questions about our relation not only to our non-human fellows, but also to our human ones.
3. Through a number of accidents of life, not least living in the Middle East for ten years, I was confronted with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and felt morally obliged to campaign for a change in consciousness in the West on this issue. I make no apology for referring to this conflict more than others, for I believe that its outcome will determine, more than the outcome of any other regional conflict, the prospects for world peace in our time. If we continue down the road we are travelling at present, the West will find itself involved in an unwinnable and immensely destructive war with Islam.

Peace campaigners typically argue that war arises from an imbalance in our relation with nature; that war is immoral; that it is unnatural; that it arises from conflicts which are petty and often illusory, and therefore resolvable by negotiation; that male chauvinism is a major part of the problem; that creating an anti-war and pro-justice culture will prevent fighting; that peace is achievable through forgiveness and that a lack of inner peace is the primary cause of conflict.

I’m going to start by looking at each of these conceptions. I will go on to consider the uncomfortable reality that war is attractive to many people, and probably to most of us at some time in our lives. And I will then offer my own conclusions for your consideration.

I. Various Conceptions of Peace.

At-Oneness with Nature

I should clarify that I’m using the word ‘nature’ here to exclude the human race. Later I will be including it, which seems to me a more logical position. But I wanted to avoid the cumbersome and much less resonant phrase ‘the non-human environment’ which is what we normally mean by ‘nature’.

The argument here is that Nature is naturally peaceful, whereas humankind, when it fails to recognise its true nature, is warlike.

On Bank Holiday Monday, three weeks ago, Christine and I walked from Steyning to Chanctonbury Ring [a small clump of trees standing on a hill top in Sussex, UK] and back. We left the hubbub of Steyning Fair by Mouse Lane, and very soon came upon a stone plaque with the following poem inscribed on it:

I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring
In summer time, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing
High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea and oh, the air!
I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.
But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,
Where every shell must kill or spare, and God knows which,
And I am made a beast of prey, and the trench is my lair.
My god, I never knew till now that those days were so fair.
And we assault in half-an-hour and it’s a silly thing.
I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

The author was John Stanley Purvis (pseudonym Philip Johnstone), and he was writing in a trench behind the Somme on 2nd December 1915. He was very clear about what peace was, that is a feeling of being at one with nature, and the absence of war. We experienced the first, probably little changed, 95 years later; it took an effort of imagination to feel the second.

My father, who was a ballistics instructor in Stoke-on-Trent at the time, wrote the following to my mother on VE Day:

Did you listen to the wireless last night? I listened most of the evening. ... The programme just before the King’s speech was remarkably good. ... And then last thing before they turned over to dance music at about 11.0 they took us to a Dorsetshire Village where a man described what was going on. He finished by taking us away from the crowds and up a hill & onto a vantage point where he could overlook the village and described the evening – the chestnuts, the little clustered houses, the quiet sheep and cattle and the deep sense of peace. I thought it was the best thing in the whole programme and so completely mirrored my own feelings.

A German officer, Herbert Sulzbach, wrote this in his diary on 6th April 1918 at Lignières on the Western Front:

You can now gradually feel the approach of spring, the bushes are already green, and in the woods which we walk through after the inspection, the handsome red and white anemones are out once again. And once more, memories from my childhood.

And on 26th April he writes about the opposite, the death of nature at human hand:

We move through the devastated area where we did such thorough work in the retreat of 1917. – There’s not a tree left standing, not a bush, and the scraps of rubble, which is all that remains of the houses, are already overgrown with grass and weeds – this is really horror brought to life! We pass a combined German-French cemetery with graves dated 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918 – there is one cross inscribed ‘für sein Vaterland’ and another bearing ‘Mort pour sa patrie’. They were all doing their duty to the same degree; we feel that all this murdering is unworthy of the human race. This was really a place where no bird sang ...

In another war poem I translated some time ago, called ‘Journey by Night,’ nature herself seems to call out in despair as the author goes about his job of delivering ammunition:

Six-coupled horses through the night sail,
Our rattling steel wagon can’t tarry,
Across stubble fields, uphill, down dale,
Missiles for murder we carry.

The crescent moon rages, fiery red,
The stars twinkle sad on high.
Blindly preparing a bloody deathbed,
Into the dark night we fly.

Has anyone asked if our mission is right?
Has anyone paused to think?
Onwards we hurry through silent night;
From hissing grenades we shrink.

That was written by another German soldier, Erwin Seligmann, like Purvis on the Somme, in October, 1914.

But is Nature really so innocent and peaceful? It would be equally possible to speak of ‘Nature read in tooth and claw’. In this case being at one with nature would be joining in the fray, the struggle for survival. Modern psychology has taught us about the murderer in each one of us.

The Moral Imperative

Thou shalt not kill!

War can be seen as a disturbance of the moral order, a situation in which ordinary people who would otherwise have nothing against each other try to kill each other; Purvis, Seligmann and Sulzbach in the First World War, my father and my father-in-law in the Second World War. In the latter case my father-in-law was in a Panzer regiment which took part in chasing the British Expeditionary Force back to Dunkirk. My father must at times have been within a few miles of my father-in-law!

One of the problems with moral imperatives is that they can be interpreted, just as any other text can be interpreted. The Jains, who take an extreme position on the preservation of life, must know that they cannot protect micro-organisms from harm. They therefore interpret their rule of non-harm to mean that they should do all they can to preserve life, and to go through a ritual, namely sweeping the ground in front of them, which indicates their dedication to this principle. At least that is how I interpret what they do. Our Western moral position on the prohibition of murder in the Ten Commandments is more like: Thou shalt not kill except in certain circumstances. This, of course, leaves open the door open to almost any interpretation.

My father’s position was that fighting in war is in certain circumstances a necessary evil, but that assassination is always wrong. He was opposed, therefore, to the attempts to kill Hitler. But here one comes upon another problem with moral imperatives. There seems no way of justifying them other than the assertion that they are God’s law. If your conception of God is non-existent, or at least less than robust, such assertions have little force.

Peace through Resolution

There is a flourishing new industry in conflict resolution. The theory underlying this movement is that no conflict is irresolvable, and that given sufficient skill and diplomacy the two (or more) sides in a conflict can reach a position of peace. There is a great deal to be said for such an approach which is the default position, at least in public, of our Western governments in any conflict situation. I’m sure that it often achieves good results; a method which may work with quarrelling marriage or ex-marriage partners may also work in the international arena.

But the conflict mediation model is liable to assume that the antagonism between the two parties is largely based on hurt feelings, rather than on irreconcilable demands. Remove the pressure of the hurt feelings, goes the theory, and the tit for tat attacks between the parties will cease and both will recognise the advantages of peace. But some the demands of parties to a conflict are irreconcilable without a fundamental shift on one side or the other. So, for example, the Palestinians and Israelis are urged to recognise the humanity of each other, and it is thought that this will automatically lead to peace. But if, as I believe, one side in that conflict wants to annexe the land of the other for its exclusive use – indeed if this is its very raison d’etre – recognising the humanity of the other is hardly likely to resolve the conflict.

Peace through the Female

There is a clear strand of modern Western thinking which holds men responsible for war. It is felt, and you can see the point, that our traditionally patriarchal society has made war inevitable, whereas matriarchal societies are essentially peaceful. Equalise the difference between the sexes, so the argument goes, and a more peace-loving female view of the world will make itself heard.

It is widely considered in so-called patriarchal societies, for example, that boys only become men by proving themselves in war. That is how the Greeks and Romans saw it, and it is also how many of the Native American tribes saw it, to the dismay of those who believe native cultures hold the secret to world peace. In 1911, the year my father was born, his godfather, who was a colonel in the Northumberland Fusiliers, made a speech in which he said: ‘What this country needs is a war,’ and he was specifically thinking of the need for young people to be toughened up. To these champions of war, there seems no other way of maintaining the moral fibre of the young and protecting their way of life than fighting those who, it is believed, would destroy it. Sometimes sabre-rattling might be enough, but the threat of force has on occasions to be backed up with its reality if it is to have any credibility.

An powerful element in our society has chosen to consider gender difference of little consequence, but it is too early to judge where this will lead us to a more peaceful world. We may have some doubts on that score. Female leaders have not always been conspicuous in their pacifity: Boudicca, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Queen Mary (who was responsible for the Lewes Protestant martyrs), Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher were all, at times belligerent.

Moreover, the very feminist movement which see war as a male invention fuels the developing war with Islam through its intolerance of the Muslim view of gender difference.

Peace from Universal Principles

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is supposedly the world community’s response to the problem of cultural diversity. What it purports to say is: ‘Cultural diversity is wonderful, so long as certain universally agreed principles are adhered to.’

Viewed in terms of ‘universal human rights’ Muslims are, broadly speaking, wrong and we are right when it comes to our attitudes to gender difference. But who invented those human rights? Certainly not devout Muslims! They consider it ‘natural’ for the roles and men and women to be clearly distinguished, and they believe much more than we now do in the virtues of manliness. The West naturally sets itself up as the champion of universal principles which it devised and which incorporate Western ideas of freedom. But by doing so it is increasingly making an enemy of the Muslim world. Israeli rhetoric focuses on the supposed deficiencies of Muslims, but what is the basis for such judgements? Should we not regard them rather as propaganda?

Many Muslims look at the West with horror, and fear the destruction of their society if they do not resist its creeping imperialism. And can you altogether blame them? Should we be proud of our cities on Friday and Saturday nights? Is our widespread promiscuity, however much we may have taken advantage of it ourselves, really desirable? Are drugs and alcohol a panacea for the stresses of life or an antisocial poison? Should we admire the way in which our society shunts its old people into homes, sometimes only to be visited occasionally, if at all, by their families? Is our championing of homosexuality healthy? Is it sensible to downplay the differences between the genders? To all of these questions devout Muslims would answer ‘No’. Who are we to say that they are wrong?

The vast majority of Muslims just want to get on with their own lives quietly, not worrying about these issues except when it affects them personally. But some are affected personally, and some of these are moved to use violent tactics of resistance in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere where the West tries to impose its order in the name of universal principles. It seems, then, that this particular route to peace is rather ineffective.

Peace through forgiveness

A very important strand of Christian thinking urges us to forgive our enemies. The thought naturally arises as to whether this is the key to peace. If, for example, the Palestinians were to forgive the Zionists for taking their land, or if the Israelis Jews were to forgive the Palestinians for resisting, would the conflict come to an end?

I have already pointed out the problem with such a position in my discussion of peace resolution. The essential point is that, except in an ideal world, forgiveness is rarely possible without acknowledgement of the harm done by the oppressor, AND a commitment not to continue with the harming. An important step in this direction was taken with David Cameron’s statement after the publication of the Saville Report into Bloody Sunday. This was a rare admission by a British government that we British ever did anything wrong in Ireland. Lasting peace will requires much more such open-hearted honesty of the same kind.

Inner Peace

My initial thought when I came to writing this part of my talk was, frankly, to dismiss it as starry-eyed. I had an image in my mind of a lotus-positioned peace campaigner whose only contribution to the discussion of conflict was ‘Peace man!’ The idea that once enough people achieve inner calm, outer calm will prevail, depends entirely on the improbable scenario of enough people being so virtuous.

However, for those who believe that the natural condition of humankind is peaceful, it is reasonable to argue that such an ideal is achievable, and that if we all found the inner peace which is our true nature, war would become redundant. This is a very persuasive argument, especially when we acknowledge our feelings of revulsion against killing. But if inner calm had been all that was needed to bring peace, then the early Christians should have achieved it.

It seems to me improbable that society could continue if everyone were trying to cultivate inner calm. Such a condition, which can be attained to some degree through meditation, may well be desirable at times in our lives, perhaps regularly, but this is not the state of mind which drives creativity, which fires the imagination of scientists, which motivated Jesus to throw the money-changers out of the Temple or even, may I venture to suggest, which drives us to make love. Without this rather unpeaceful activity we wouldn’t have much of a future!

But as I reflected further on this matter, I realised that I also believe that a certain spiritual orientation would drastically reduce the incidence of conflict. The pursuit of power, beyond a certain point, is destructive and illusory. It rests on an assumption that the achievement of ever more power is both possible and beneficial for the person or collective concerned. In fact it is neither, but for those who are subject to this illusion only a spiritual reorientation which involves accepting our ultimate powerlessness in an infinite universe is likely to reverse it. In earlier times the Church, through its role in coronation for example, attempted to moderate the excesses of rulers (though at other times sadly doing the opposite). It could achieve this, when it did, because of a spiritual outlook which is not particularly common in our time. Kings and Queens were forced to recognise their own fallibility and mortality. Ordinary people today want, and are encouraged, to believe almost the opposite, because otherwise they would feel exposed. This makes them willing pawns in conflict situations, even to the extent of becoming, at times, complicit in atrocity. I believe the Third Gulf War was such a case.

II. Arguments for War

Effectiveness: Those of us who campaign for peace find it hard to accept that the use of force often achieves its ends. At home the existence of a police force with powers of arrest does, I believe, deter people from committing crimes. And hardened criminals are put out of harm’s way by the law. Similarly, in the international arena, military power is used to establish dominance in various areas of the world. Resistance is stamped out, and the leaderships of unsatisfactory allies are toppled. Germany, for example, was defeated, and remains within the Western camp, whether or not your agree with this outcome. I conclude that it is no use arguing for the abolition of military forces, though of course a degree of disarmament may be achieved by negotiation, and this may limit the extent of future conflict.

The excitement of war: My father, who claimed he was a real pacifist before the war, but who changed his mind around 1938, used to say: ‘War is terrible,’ and he intended thereby to close any conversation which might be interpreted as glorification of war. And yet he never succeeded. He wanted to talk about it, and soon he would be regaling us with military language; this battalion, that regiment, flanking attacks, recce patrols, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and so on. The same was true of my father-in-law, who was a sergeant in the German Army, though in his case he had less inhibition in talking about the war, particularly if he’d had a drink or two. ‘The attack on Poland started at 2 a.m. All our guns started firing instantaneously. Incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it!’ It was my mother-in-law who would hiss: ‘Shut up Pauli!’ She didn’t want the peace disturbed by accounts of terrible carnage on the Eastern Front.

My father’s and my father-in-law’s monologues about the war, came, at least in part, from a feeling that they have never lived so close to the edge as they did during the war. Sigmund Freud, who had two sons in the Austrian Army during the First World War, wrote the following in 1915 in an essay called ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’:

I attribute our present sense of estrangement in this once lovely and congenial world [in part to] the disturbance that has taken place in the attitude which we have hitherto adopted towards death. / That attitude far from straightforward. To anyone who listened to us we were of course prepared to maintain that death was the necessary outcome of life, that everyone owes nature a death and must expect to pay that debt – in short, that death was natural, undeniable and unavoidable. In reality, however, we were accustomed to behave as if it were otherwise. / ... But this attitude towards death has a powerful effect on our lives. Life is impoverished, it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked. /... It is an inevitable result of all this that we should seek in the world of fiction, in literature and in the theatre compensation for what has been lost in life. / ... It is evident that war is bound to sweep away this conventional treatment of death. Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in it. People really die; and no longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands, in a single day. ... Life has, indeed, become interesting again; it has recovered its full content.

A more peaceful society will, then, have to find ways of replacing the excitement of war with other kinds of excitement.

III. My Own Conception

The Centrality of Love: There is, I believe, one universal principle which underlies all the vain attempts at formulating a universal set of moral principles, and that is love. Without love children would not survive, and it is therefore deeply ingrained in the human psyche that we should be kind, and conversely that we should oppose cruelty. We have this characteristic in common with many other animals.

The impossibility of universal morality: Unfortunately, however, this one principle is contradicted by a myriad of considerations and ambitions. We all know, for example, that there are times when you have to be cruel to be kind. Killing someone who is about to kill your family might seem terrible out of context, but in context it is the most natural thing in the world.

As I have indicated already, I do not think it is possible to state confidently that one set of values is better than another. And yet this is what we in the West do all the time. We say, for example ‘What are we going to do about the position of women in Muslim countries?’ as if it were our business to decide what they should do. We condemn the Ugandan government because of its attitude towards homosexuality, but how do we know that they are wrong and we right? The principle of love may tell us that to discriminate against homosexuals is cruel, but another principle, which some believe in, argues that masculinity is threatened by the celebration of sexual variation. How do we choose between these positions?

Ambition and the power of narratives: If there is no way of discerning a universal morality, then those who assert any particular view of the world have great power. The fact that you probably winced when I said what I did about homosexuality in Uganda comes at least partly, I would suggest, from your internalisation of the modern liberal attitude towards homosexuality. Not to adhere to that narrative, which was created by an ambitious intellectual elite following a particular tendency of thinking after the war, is to open yourself at best to ostracism, and at worst to imprisonment. Yet these narratives are simply that, stories, which we can choose to believe, or not to believe, or to believe up to a certain point.

In a long polemical poem, The Wind and the Whirlwind, written shortly after the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, William Scawen Blunt spoke of the difficulty of challenging dominant narratives:

I have a thing to say. But how to say it?
I have a cause to plead. But to what ears?
How shall I move a world by lamentation,
A world which heeded not a Nation’s tears?

How shall I speak of justice to the aggressors,
Of right to Kings whose rights include all wrong,
Of truth to Statecraft, true but in deceiving,
Of peace to Prelates, pity to the Strong?

Where shall I find a hearing? In high places?
The voice of havock drowns the voice of good.
On the throne’s steps? The elders of the nation
Rise in their ranks and call aloud for blood.

Where? In the street? Alas for the world’s reason!
Not Peers not Priests alone this deed have done.
The clothes of those high Hebrews stoning Stephen
Were held by all of us, - ay every one.

Yet none the less I speak. Nay, here by Heaven
This task at least a poet best may do,
To stand alone against the mighty many,
To force a hearing for the weak and few.

It is not insignificant that Blunt was an Irishman who happened to be living in Egypt at the time. He saw through the contemporary self-serving narratives, as the Irish are wont to do, and therefore had something to say. But how was he to say it? I know the feeling!

I no longer believe in the perfectibility of the human race, and I do not, therefore, think that ambition can ever be sufficiently controlled to prevent conflict. Nor do I even think it would be desirable if it were possible. Heaven has always seemed to me a less desirable place than Hell! My view is, then, quite sceptical. It seems to me that the best that can be achieved is relative peace. Campaigning for the abolition of war and the arms industry seems to me a waste of energy. I think negotiations for degrees of disarmament are sensible and conflict resolution techniques may sometimes be appropriate. But the greatest weapon (to paradoxically use a military metaphor) in defusing potential conflicts is to deconstruct the narratives of those with ambition, whether we are speaking of individuals or whole societies. We need, in particular, to show how those with power are driven by an unacknowledged existential anxiety, and will use every trick at their disposal to persuade us that what they want is in our interests. It rarely is. This thinking has led me away from conventional campaigning on the Palestinian issue and towards a more analytical approach in which I ask myself: ‘What are the illusions which underlie the oppression of these people, and how can I expose them sufficiently to create a shift of consciousness?’

The present emphasis among most of those campaigning for the Palestinians has been on embarrassing or prodding the Israelis into ‘concessions’. I am not against actions such as boycotting Israeli goods – indeed I do it myself – but I recognise that the best that will be achieved by them is small adjustments to Israeli policy. So long as the majority of Jews in the world, and urged on by them, the West in general, support the illusory dream of an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine, the problem will be resolvable only in military terms. But if you deconstruct that narrative, which is based on a huge amount of mythology, the whole basis for the conflict will begin to evaporate. There is a stark choice, therefore, in this conflict between a change of ideology on the Israeli side and war. I fear the latter will continue, but I will continue to campaign for the latter.

To conclude, then, to facilitate peace we need, on the one hand, to unravel narratives, with all their incorporated mythology, and, on the other hand, to be tolerant of other cultures even when what they do offends our sense of what is right.

Francis Clark-Lowes
July 2010