Archive for category War/Conflict

Why I will be wearing a poppy…but defend your right not to.

Poppy_field

It’s that time of year again – the big poppy debate. Should you or shouldn’t you? Is it a show of remembrance or a glorification of war? A charitable initiative or an abdication of government responsibility for veterans? Ensue mass twitter abuse at TV presenters who don’t wear a poppy.

This year, like all years, I will be wearing a poppy. In fact, I’m looking forward to receiving my ceramic one from the Tower of London installation. But if you are one of those who have chosen not to wear a poppy, I support you 100% in your decision.

I wear a poppy because I have a personal interest in the military, because I support the work the Royal British Legion does and, for me, it reminds me of the sacrifice others have made on my behalf. But these are my personal reasons and if you don’t share them I respect that.

What I do not respect is pressuring others into thinking as I do; in making people feel ostracised or guilty because they do not feel as I do. In applying mass peer pressure to make people conform to an idea of patriotism that somebody somewhere has apparently defined. I do not like a symbol of hope being used as an excuse to spread vitriol and division. I do not like any attempt to curtail the freedom of choice; the freedom of expression of those who choose to not to wear a poppy – everything which, to me, the poppy stands against. To paraphrase Voltaire, I may not agree with your decision not to wear a poppy, but I defend with a vehemence your right not to.

Forcing TV presenters and others to wear a poppy is also, to me, rather insulting. Someone who does not actually care about the cause but has to wear a poppy out of fear of abuse if they don’t, devalues the symbolism. It’s disingenuous. It’s tokenism. It doesn’t further the cause of remembrance if people don’t understand what they are supposed to be remembering. This shouldn’t have to be an opt-out situation; people shouldn’t have to justify why they are not wearing one. The poppy appeal shouldn’t be tainted with such negativity.

Men and women have died so that we could have the freedom to choose how we live our lives. Lets not sully their memory by refusing to respect the choices people make when it comes to remembering those who have fallen.

 

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How the First World War broke our faith in authority

(or why Jeremy Paxman has got it wrong).

In yet another attempt to flog himself as a self-proclaimed expert on the First World War, Jeremy Paxman has been lamenting the apparent way in which the history of this conflict has entered public consciousness. Speaking at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature in Dubai last week Paxman argued that war poetry, such as that by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, serves to confirm peoples’ ‘prejudices…to see the whole thing as a terrible pointless sacrifice’. Paxman believes that:

the events [of the First World War] now are so built upon by writers and attitudinisers and propaganda that the actual events seem submerged. So what I wanted to do was re-engage with the events themselves. How did they seem to people at the time?Forget the poems

Unfortunately it seems that Paxman has become confused with how history is studied (not surprising given that, despite his wish to be an authority on the First World War, he does not hold even an undergraduate degree in history). You can study events in history, and you can study the perceptions, thoughts, feelings and opinions of those who took part in these events. Sometimes you can study both together. But the two do not necessarily equate. In fact, rarely are they the same thing. No two people ever view the same series of events in the same way – which is what makes history so damn interesting in the first place. So if Paxman wants to study events that’s one thing. If he wants to understand how such events seemed ‘to people at the time’ he has to realise that Sassoon and Owen were people of the time. They were not propagandists – they wrote about what they felt and heard and saw, and the fact that they put these thoughts into the form of poetry does not make them any less valid as primary sources. To ‘forget them’ is to refuse to engage with an important historical source simply because you don’t like what they say.

Come_and_Join_this_Happy_Throng_Art.IWMPST13604What Paxman also fails to acknowledge is that Sassoon and Owen were not alone. Although Paxman and Michael Gove might not like it, there was a real sense of horror in Britain at the time of the First World War over the sheer scale and brutality of the conflict. The war touched the lives of ordinary people in a way that no previous conflict ever had. It’s easy to forget in today’s day and age where we are constantly exposed to images of soldiers in Afghanistan and bombs exploding in Gaza that for the average person in 1914 – 1918 the death and destruction of the war was a shock. People who had no previous experience of the military were pulled in to fight and nurse and grieve in a way that had profound consequences for the future of British society.

Mutiny and Revolution

One such consequence was the severance of traditional feelings regarding authority. The hurt and anger which the public felt at the destruction they saw came to focus on those who they believed were to blame for taking Britain to war in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, many British people did blame the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence for the First World War. It was believed that the secret machinations of elitist Foreign Office officials had led Britain into an unnecessary conflict that had caused the death of thousands of working class men. After 1918 there were veracious calls for reform of the Foreign Office recruitment process, for example, to counter the dominance of the aristocracy in the making of future foreign policy. It was also argued that all future foreign agreements and treaties should receive parliamentary approval – a suggestion made as a result of the belief that Britain had been pulled into the war in the first place because the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, had taken it upon himself to make various promises to the French and Russians. The economic crisis that followed the war only exacerbated these bitter feelings as unemployment spread and labour unrest rocketed. In January 1919 police and workers clashed violently in Glasgow to the point where tanks and machine guns were called in to occupy the city. Initial plans to release men from the military in phases so as to allow better re-integration into civilian work had to be cancelled when troops stationed in Folkestone and Dover mutinied. In 1918 and 1919 the police themselves went on strike. By 1920 there was a likelihood that should a general strike occur (as was being threatened for that Autumnthe authorities might find the police and ex-soldiers joining the workers. As a report of the Home Office put it, ‘in the event of rioting, for the first time in history the rioters will be better trained than the troops’. So serious was the situation that in January 1920 the Chief of the Imperial General Staff set his men to prepare plans for ‘mutiny and revolution’ in Britain.

This unrest was not confined to Britain either. Throughout the world people were starting to question the status quo. The First World War had seen the destruction of many of the great empires of the day and brought forth Communist revolution in at least one country. Everywhere the old ruling elite appeared to be collapsing and boundaries and borders shifting. America, with its proclamations of self-determination for all nations, was now front and centre of the international stage. The concept of ‘authority’ was evolving. When Gandhi, a small Indian man in a loin cloth, appeared able to challenge the might of the British Empire, then all ideas of authority, tradition and status quo were up for questioning. The First World War broke common faith in authority. People felt betrayed by the very people who professed to be their betters. While it would still take decades for British society to make real headway in eradicating notions of privilege, class and elitism, it was arguably in 1918 that such profound change began.

Soldier with Prosthetic Limb at the Personnel Recovery Centre in Edinburgh

The consequences of armed service are all too familiar to modern society. Photo: Sergeant Ian Forsyth RLC

Call of Duty

Paxman’s other argument centres on the idea that should such a conflict break out today Britain’s youth would not be rushing to sign up to fight as they did in 1914.

‘We live in such a relativistic society now, and materialistic, self-obsessed and hedonistic; it’s hard to imagine circumstances under which people would say that ‘it is worth it, I’m willing to risk my life and well-being for this’…What would [the younger] generation fight for? The right to use your iPhone? What are the great noble causes?’

In his typical fashion of trying to argue a point that is based merely on opinion and conjecture, Paxman resorts to the cliché of ‘young people today’. Expanding further, Paxman argues that one of the reasons the younger generation would not sign up to fight ‘is probably that ideas of duty, clearly strongly felt by many people, have diminished as the international significance of the country has diminished’. The problem here is that Paxman equates a lack of sense of duty with a lack of social conscience; that because young people today may not feel a sense of responsibility to Queen and country that they are therefore inherently selfish and superficial. This is a very poor argument indeed. I believe that young people today are still capable of incredible acts of generosity, bravery and self-sacrifice, if they believe in the cause. Perhaps they will not blithely sign-up to kill others simply because their elders say so; perhaps they would not believe it would be over by Christmas; perhaps they have seen too many photos and videos to be ignorant of the grim reality of warfare. That does not mean they do not believe or care about important issues. Thousands of men and women still enlist in the British armed services every year even though they face the real possibility of actually being shot at (unlike Paxman’s generation). And in 1939 when world war broke out once again, thousands of men and women still rushed to pledge their help. The reason? Part of it may have been about duty – but a large part would also have been because they believed that Nazi Germany needed to be stopped and that they needed to defend their homeland from foreign aggression. Their trust in authority may have been broken, but their understanding of right and wrong was not.

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Keeping Talking: Lessons to be Learnt from the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

From 10 to 13 June, government representatives from more than 123 countries and over 1,000 experts, faith leaders, lawyers, Nobel laureates, activists, survivors and youth groups gathered together in London for a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Chaired by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, the summit considered key areas for change including accountability, support for survivors and reform of security and justice. But, perhaps more important than all the talk of political leaders, was the encouragement of public engagement with the summit. The Global Summit Fringe included public seminars, theatre, film showings, a market-place, photography exhibitions and representation from many charities and NGOs. Topped off with a vocal social media campaign, the summit and its fringe were designed to once and for all break the silence that has, for too long, surrounded the issue of sexual violence in conflict.

800px-Angelina_Jolie_and_Foreign_Secretary_William_Hague_at_the_Global_Summit_to_End_Sexual_Violence_in_Conflict_2014

Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie address the media at ExCel London ahead of the opening of the Summit Fringe on Tuesday 10 June. Photo courtesy of FCO.

Accountability

Unfortunately, rarely do perpetrators of sexual violence during war-time face consequences to their actions. Knowing it is unlikely that anything will be done to bring their abuser to justice is one reason why too few victims report what has happened to them. This in turn leads to a lack of proper data on sexual crime, which further hampers resolution of the problem. Thus, one immediate and effective way to end such violence is to strengthen the investigation and prosecution of these acts. To this end, the summit saw the launch of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which ‘sets out international standards on how to collect the strongest possible information and evidence, whilst protecting witnesses, in order to increase convictions and deter future perpetrators’. In future, countries will be held to account for their prosecution of those who believe that war is an excuse for committing appalling acts of sexual violence against women, children and men.

Support of Survivors

During the summit it was agreed that further funding was needed to support UN and NGO efforts to provide assistance to those who have survived sexual violence during conflict. Importantly, it was also recognised that ‘preventing and responding to sexual violence must be prioritized from the start of any humanitarian response and most importantly, recognised as life-saving activity, not an afterthought’. Such help needs to be delivered swiftly and include holistic and integrated services, from full sexual reproductive health rights to psycho-social support, livelihoods support and shelter. Key to such work in helping survivors is also the provision of access to justice, including reparations. Indeed, reparation is often cited by victims of sexual violence as key to their recovery, and not just in financial terms. Often, reparation is about ‘the restoration of dignity, status and health’, but at the moment it is an underused means of justice.

It's time to break the silence.

It’s time to break the silence. Photo author’s own.

Security and Justice Reform

Security and peacekeeping forces are often the first responders to sexual violence. They have access to information about events that is otherwise unavailable to civilians and they may be the only protection that vulnerable sections of society have against sexual violence. They may also be perpetrators. Yet security forces are often not properly equipped to deal with this sensitive and difficult problem. To this end, the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has made ‘the commitment to ensure national military and police doctrine and training [is] aligned with international law’. Efforts are also to be made for the promotion of gender equality within the justice and security sector as a means of helping to tackle sexual violence. The participation of women (who often have more access and legitimacy than official negotiators) in peace processes also needs to become the norm.

Not Just Politicians

Resolutions, laws, pledges and international agreements are all well and good but unless attitudes change this will not be enough to end sexual violence in conflict. It was, therefore, recognised by the summit that faith groups have a key role to play. They often have access and influence with local communities and thus are ‘uniquely placed to change hearts and minds, and challenge cultural and social norms, including notions of masculine identity as it affects sexual violence’. Faith-based organisations also play a part in providing care, treatment and support for survivors, and so should be engaged as active partners in the fight against sexual violence. Likewise, local community activists are often best placed to make a difference on the ground, including in changing attitudes and behaviours that underpin inequality and the spread of violence.

The Sound of Silence

For too long sexual violence in conflict has been a taboo subject, or seen as an inevitable part of war. And it is this silence over the issue which has been one of the greatest barriers to ending it. Silence from the victims who are often afraid to speak out about what has happened to them for fear of further persecution or blame; silence from the survivors and their families because of the shame that it is felt when female ‘purity’ has been compromised; silence because what is the point, when so often the perpetrators face no consequence for their actions; silence from forces of security and justice who are ill-equipped to deal with the problem; and silence from governments who prefer to ignore the horrific nature of a problem than admit its existence. The greatest triumph of the Global Summit is, therefore, quite simply the breaking of the silence. Politicians, military leaders, faith leaders, NGOs, charities, survivors, activists and ordinary people from all backgrounds came together for a few days to talk. To talk and to share and to listen. But the summit is just the beginning – we must keep the conversation going.

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