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War and Peace

Entry 1923, on 2018-07-17 at 20:19:18 (Rating 3, Comments)

A minor controversy has broken out recently here in Dunedin. It involves a memorial garden dedicated to World War I conscientious objector, Archibald Baxter (who just happens to be a somewhat remote relative of mine). Opinions have appeared in the local paper suggesting that a memorial to someone who refused to fight is disrespectful to those who did, and especially to the many New Zealanders (16,697 of them) who didn't return from the Great War.

Although there seems to be a strong opinion against a memorial to a pacifist, there seems to be what is maybe an even stronger opinion that war should be avoided, and that World War I in particular was the most extreme example of barbarity and stupidity. Words such as "debacle" and "travesty" are often used to describe the unprecedented and pointless slaughter.

So if the vast majority people agree that war in general should be avoided, except in extreme circumstances, and that the reasons for World War I in particular were inconsequential, then why would there be such a strong objection to someone who refused to have anything to do with it?

Well, one opinion is that Baxter was a coward and just didn't want to fight. But his activities before and after the war seem to indicate a genuine dedication to pacifism. And in many ways taking a stand against the establishment was a more courageous action that simply going along with what was expected.

After all, many people who did go to war thought it would be little more than a bit of an adventure where the enemy would be quickly vanquished and they would return before the end of the year with plenty of exciting tales to tell. It was only when they arrived on the killing fields of France and Belgium that the true horror of the situation became apparent.

Few people would say that those who did fight in Europe - half a world away from their peaceful home in New Zealand - and especially those who died there, should not be honoured in some way. Even if the reasons for the war itself, and the often incompetent way it was executed by senior military leaders was worthy of little respect, the innocent victims do deserve to be recognised and admired.

But that doesn't mean that a person who took a genuine stand against the war, and suffered as a consequence, shouldn't also be recognised. There is room for recognition of both forms of sacrifice, and one shouldn't negate the other in any way.

If there was any real enemy who should be disparaged in this debate it is the politicians and some senior military leaders who caused the war in the first place, and whose actions lead to far greater death and destruction than should have been necessary.

There are plenty of memorials to those who fought and died in wars around the country. And, surprisingly, attendance at commemorations of the two World Wars (and others) has increased in recent years. So there doesn't seem to be any real chance for the sacrifice of those who did fight being forgotten. But I often wonder whether that does, even to a small extent, glorify the option of violence. A single memorial garden to an individual who opposed war surely won't make any real difference to the greater picture.

We still have a national day to commemorate the people who were lost in wars. We don't have anything to remember those who tried to stop that happening. Surely this is not too much to ask. I hope this is not another example of the "industry of grievance" where people become offended by something just because of some incredibly superficial disagreement with it.

Think about it: if everyone had done what Archie did and refused to obey orders to kill other human beings they had no real disagreement with, then the whole sorry mess could have been avoided. But if everyone did the opposite and lined up to kill and be massacred in their millions by simply obeying the orders of some incompetent upper-class general, then how is that a good thing? By the way, I know that the characterisation of generals as incompetent members of the upper class isn't always fair, but it makes a good rhetorical point!

So in summary, I say that we should be honouring the conscientious objectors as much as those who fought. In the end they both required a certain amount of courage, but one also required a greater amount of individual thinking and commitment to ideals. I'm proud to count Archibald as one of my ancestors, not just because of his commitment to peace, but also because he thought for himself, something I pride myself on as well.

I hope the memorial garden is treated with appropriate respect once it is built and I hope that it is something people will reflect on as much as our war memorials.

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Comment 1 (4923) by Jim on 2018-07-19 at 17:01:41:

Thanks for sharing. I agree we need to remember those who fought but we should never forget about those who made sacrifices for peace.

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Comment 2 (4924) by OJB on 2018-07-20 at 09:12:26:

Yes, that seems to be the most reasonable conclusion. Unfortunately, many people react emotionally and without really thinking about it. It's all part of the tribalism I have been complaining about recently.

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