It’s been quite some time since I’ve written anything on this blog, both because the first year of a PhD programme in political science is apparently a bit busy but also because I haven’t really felt the urge to ‘get anything out’, at least not in this format. I try hard not to be too trivial in what I post, and I’m not particularly interested in saying something that others have already said better in easily accessible formats. But I do think I have a few thoughts worth sharing now. I can’t vouch for them being particularly insightful, though. Treat them as prompts more than assertive claims.
Remembrance Day was on the 11 November. Veteran’s Day, its US analog, was also on the 11th. On these days and in the days prior, we encountered many stories of the acts of wartime courage committed by military personnel and we commemorated both the sacrifices that soldiers make and the traumatic horror of war, and in particular the two World Wars. But some of us were not fully comfortable with the way Remembrance is done. We worry that the celebration of veterans both glorifies war and pays only perfunctory respect to the reality of their experiences. We wonder if cloaking veterans in the mantle of heroism and glorious sacrifice obscures the true savagery of combat and produces enthusiasm rather than apprehension for conflict.
I’m going to remain largely agnostic, at least here, as to the validity of these concerns. Instead, I’m going to suggest a model for what I’d call a truly Humanist Remembrance Day.
A Humanist Remembrance Day would see us affirm the following principles and propositions:
1. We’re all affected by war. A recent article on Foreign Policy made the point that civilians in warzones are often just as familiar with battle as those fighting, and are often no less scarred or affected by it than soldiers; that they, too, are veterans. Yet even we here, safe and sound, are veterans of a sort. People of my generation or younger grew up in an age where images of war and security paranoia were everywhere. And they still are. As I discovered recently, it is hard to find a nineteen year old student taking an international relations course who is actually willing to hold out for the possibility of something like a democratic peace. I found one out of forty, in fact. In the years during which we are supposed to be most idealistic, these young people are cynics about the most noble idealism I could imagine. And while this isn’t quite the same as the cynicism of an actual veteran of the same age, I don’t think it’s just the sort of fashionable cynicism we all try to affect when we’re young. I think it truly comes from an absence of hope for a world ever free of war. Meanwhile, people of a slightly older generation grew up fearing nuclear holocaust. Those even older may have fought in Vietnam.
War touches all of us. It touches some of us a more profoundly and traumatically than it does others, and our experiences of it may vary, but we must engage with it as a people and as a society. War is something we all do, and not just those in the military or those trapped in the crossfire.
2. War is always a choice. That doesn’t mean that it might not sometimes be the right choice, nor that our other options might be truly unpalatable, but it is not something we simply find ourselves doing. It’s not a habit. It’s not some kind of determined phenomenon, at least not on a case by case basis. When we make war, as individuals and as groups, we’re choosing to initiate devastating violent courses of action. We all must bear some responsibility for the choice to war, and we must reflect on what that responsibility entails.
3. War is politics. War is an instrument of policy, even as it is also something deeply affective and emotional. As such, war is something we do in order to achieve a social outcome: some change to society, some change to government. As Humanists, we should be willing to make use of every political instrument available to us, including war, but we should also make use of all of our sciences and technologies to ensure that we choose the best tool for the task. And the more tools we have in the box, the better we can do this.
One example of this from my own research interests would be the potential of military assassination – aka ‘targeted killing’ – to permit particularly discriminating uses of violence that minimise the harm caused to non-combatants.
4. War is a human tragedy. It is a tragedy for everyone. We should mourn every loss of life in war, regardless of whose life it is. We can imagine a world in which our enemies were our best friends, where a different set of social structures, a different set of policies and politicians, and a different view of right and wrong simply did not lead to a conflict between us and them. Even if we adamantly believe that a war is justified, we must acknowledge that the conditions which make it just are contingent.
5. Our heroes are victims. As courageous as many of our most heroic veterans have been – those winners of Victoria Crosses and those people who risked their own life many times to save the lives of others – they are also victims of a terrible set of circumstances. Nobody should have to risk their life to save others. And those who have deserve our sympathy as well as our respect. We should remember this as we consider what sort of reception to give to those returning from war, and what sort of support services are available to veterans.
Well, that’s it for now. Feel free to add or contend these principles as you see fit.