Tag Archives: war

When stories are the battleground

How do you know what’s true? Who do you trust for information? It’s become ever more problematic since the start of the covid crisis, but the war of stories and information is far older than that. Most conspiracy theories are bunk, and a very few turn out to be super-important. How do you decide which stories to share and believe in?

For anyone on the bard path, the power of stories is likely already a consideration. For anyone interested in politics, and world politics, the question of how stories have become weapons is an ongoing issue. It’s not easy, when faced with a story, to decide what to do with it.

I want the stories that help me understand other perspectives. I want the stories that open out possibilities and make more room to include more people. I reject the stories that encourage us to hate each other and mistrust each other. I reject any story that is about how a group of people deserve to suffer for being who they are when they are doing no harm at all.

Any story has the potential to become true. If we adopt a story and live by it, and invest in it we may well make it real. Sometimes asking if something is factually accurate isn’t the key thing. It may be much more useful to ask what a story will do, what it will enable, who it supports and who it crushes. I’m here for the stories that uplift people and crush injustice. 

For some years now, stories have been part of an ideas war being fought across the world. Don’t share the stories you don’t want to see come true – not even to argue with them. If you need to talk about stories you consider problematic, work around them, don’t give them direct attention and don’t send people to the places airing the problem stories. If we don’t invest energy in them, stories wither and die, to be replaced by stories that were better able to engage people. We get a say in how that plays out.

Girl with a sword – fiction

Grass double swords were the last weapon

In the village all were killed.

Just one girl is there now.

She had never got any tools to be in war.

Winds blow.

Waves come.

The World is ending.

Slowly and sadly, she decides.

Remember you, my love.

No one is ready for war. Tensions turn into rifts as the fabric of society comes undone. Hostility becomes violence. People you thought you knew are not your friends any more, not your neighbours. Trust shatters. My enemy’s enemy is probably also my enemy.

Sometimes it is just a matter of who can bring the most force to bear. Who had weapons already? What are you willing to fight for? What are you able to defend? How well can you hide? Then it becomes a question of skill and knowledge. Can you find water and do you know what to do to make it drinkable? Do you know how to find food? In the end, sickness and hunger kills more people than the violence does.

A bamboo sword might not seem like much, but they aren’t heavy and don’t need much skill to make or use. Three sticks bound together becomes a weapon. After the bullets run out, the bamboo sword can still lash. You won’t kill anyone with that blunt edge, but you can sting them, hurt them enough to make them leave you alone. It is enough.

(Art by Dr Abbey, text by both of us)

What if we opened borders?

I’m in favour of open borders for many reasons. I think people should be free to work, live, marry, shack up, study and settle any place they like and that it should not be about the accident of where you were born.

The main reason against open borders is about not wanting a flood of refugees. Affluent nations fear being swamped by people fleeing war, poverty and disaster – human-made climate disaster included. This is precisely why we need open borders. Big, affluent nations are very good at causing poverty and are the major driving force on climate change. There’s a long history of affluent countries fueling war – for political reasons and to make money from weapons sales.

If we opened all the borders, there would suddenly be a lot of political pressure for those who have most, to end war, deal with poverty and tackle climate change. Those who cause most harm would have a vested interest in cleaning things up. Currently, we dump our waste and recycling on poorer countries. We denude their landscapes growing our luxuries and then we don’t pay properly for what we take. We export the shittiest jobs to places we can pay less to have them done.

No one wants to have to flee their home because of war, natural disaster or climate change. Yes, there’s a lot of attraction for a young person to go out into the world and seek their fortune. But that’s not the same as being an economic migrant, forced by lack of options and desperation to try and find a better life somewhere else.

Opening borders would pave the way to taking better care of each other. It would change how we think about war and refugees. It would impact on the willingness of wealthy nations to tolerate the behavior of countries who abuse their citizens. It would make it harder to image that there is an ‘away’ where we can dump our crap and ignore our responsibilities.

Why shouldn’t we have the freedom to travel about and live where we please? If there was more fairness in the world and a more equitable sharing of resources we wouldn’t find some countries overloaded with incomers and others denuded of their young and talented folk. It would all balance out plausibly well. ,

The saddest songs

There are a lot of songs about the First World War, and most of them really get to me. The tragedy, waste, grief and pathos is almost unbearable. And so it should be. It’s really important to have these expressions in our culture, and the mainstream does not do anything like enough of it. There is a power in this kind of storytelling that goes far further to honour and remember than the laying of wreaths ever could.

Human lives are full of disasters, from the personal errors to the catastrophic horrors of war. These are things we need to know about. We need to meet them head on, and feel them keenly. By this means we are able to learn from each other. We can reflect on the things that have broken other people’s hearts and wrecked their lives, and do something different. The more we sing about the incomprehensible slaughter of war, the less willing we will be to rattle sabres and send our own children off to die. As Pete Seeger sang ‘when will we ever learn’? Well, the short answer is that we won’t if we steadfastly refuse to even think about these things.

We want our entertainment amusing, pleasant, distracting, easy. This is without doubt a very good thing to have in the mix, but if we have a culture that only wishes to be amused and refuses to look at anything dark or painful, we miss these chances to learn and to do better.

It may be uncomfortable to weep for the dead of wars that happened before you were born, but sometimes a song can help us do just that, and we are all the better for it.

This is a fairly upbeat sounding song, if you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics. Words by A.E. Houseman. And if for any reason, you can’t play or listen, here are the words…

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

The war to end all wars

One hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany, in what was soon labelled as the war to end all wars. The scale of death so shocked people of the time that they all imagined no one would ever do anything like it again. We had established, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that war is a miserable and futile thing, with unspeakable costs, and that you can spend years killing people in their thousands and make no meaningful political changes.

If we had any sense as a species, that would have been it, and we’d never have had a war since. A hundred years on, and we’re still in the habit of killing each other in horrible ways that ultimately change very little outside of the personal tragedies. Why? Because there is always someone who thinks violence will get them what they want. Fear of the aggressor means that nations who would like to view themselves as non-aggressive have to keep weapons and armies to protect themselves, right through to protecting themselves with pre-emptive strikes. There are people in the weapons trade who make a fortune out of war, and if you’re a politician with an eye to history book posterity, war remains tempting. This is in turn because we so often write our histories as the history of warfare and commanders.

If words like ‘glorious’ and ‘heroic’ are associated with killing people, the whole thing is a lot more attractive. A glance at the WW1 poets will show you a bunch of young men who had been told how noble and good it was to lay down your life for your country, not how awful it was watching a friend slowly choke to death on gas. What would our attitude to war be like if we taught more social history? What if we taught the history of science more, or the history of democracy? There are some very interesting and informative histories out there and if you study history until the age of 14, you’ll barely know they exist. You will know a fair bit about the two world wars. You’ll probably know Norman conquest and Saxon raiders, a few kings and queens, a few other big, important fights. If you’re American, you’d expect to know all about the war of independence and the civil war. Our histories are so often the histories of violence, as though only this past exists and is available to talk about.

It would be lovely if all the people in power figured out how to never start another war. I won’t hold my breath. We’d have to give up on greed, on bids to control resources, religious hatred, cultural imperialism, and fear of each other. We’re a long ways from doing those things. Many of us live in societies that make token gestures at being democratic. In theory, the will of the people means something. The culture a leader thinks they come from certainly has an influence. Financial pressure talks.

We are not going to get world peace by waiting around for the power hungry, greed driven idiots who grab power to play nicely. It’s going to have to come from a grass roots, from a culture that does not love and romanticise violence through its films, does not hero-worship killers and tell proud stories of the slaughter in its history. A culture that sees violence as failure will be a lot less inclined to get into wars. A culture that does not see leadership potential in swaggering bully boys who want to play at soldiers (either gender, with all due reference to Margaret Thatcher). Right wing politics is riddled with the language of macho violence even when it’s not planning to kill anyone directly. It’s all wars on things, fights, tough choices, it’s the language of conquest and victory. What we need is culture of co-operation that has good relationships with other cultures rather than living in fear of them.

We’re a very long way from there, one hundred years after the war to end all wars didn’t. That doesn’t make it impossible, or any less worth trying for. Until we change the culture of leadership, it isn’t going to come from those who lead.

Honouring the dead

Today is the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Here in the UK we will be honouring the soldiers killed in armed conflicts. I’ll be very clear up front: I take no issue with people who are soldiers as a general premise. Individual conduct is a different thing. I am not questioning honouring the war dead in any way (emotive topic after all) but I am questioning the things we don’t do alongside that.

The desire to serve and protect has always brought people to armies. Propaganda and tales of glory, cultural pressure and politically nurtured fear: Honest reasons to defend hearth and home that no individual should be blamed for responding to. Formal drafts and recruitment by force mean that many who have fought and died were not there by choice. Poverty and lack of other opportunities has always been a great army recruiting officer, too. I do not blame anyone for doing what they had to, to survive. Thinking about soldiers dropped into disaster zones, and the way these trained and disciplined people can be mobilised in any emergency… there’s a lot of good work you can do with an army that is not about killing people.

Wars have always been about people in power wanting more power and more resources. If you are obliged to fight to defend your home and way of life, you have every right to do so, but never forget this only happens because some power hungry bastard has started a thing.

War does not just kill soldiers. We do not talk about the medical folk, men and women alike, who died trying to save lives. We do not speak of the men and boys who died in the merchant navy, trying to keep countries supplied with essentials. Their work is no less heroic – and arguably more so because it is simply directed towards preserving life, and often undertaken with no arms or armour.

In the First World War, one fifth of the casualties were civilian. By the end of the 20th century, your typical war inflicted a 90% civilian casualty rate, while wars in the 20th century accounted for some 187 million lives worldwide. (Figures taken from John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy). Wars kill off countless animals, both those used to facilitate it, and those who are ‘collateral damage’ alongside their civilian human neighbours. Landscapes and eco systems are destroyed by bombs, alongside culture and heritage. War destroys.

It is simply not enough to honour those who fought and died. We need to start talking about what war actually means, and what it actually costs. The best tribute we could pay to the many victims of war, and especially those who fought, would be to cease this madness. World War One was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It wasn’t. We failed them. We owe our war dead more than that. We owe each other more than that and we owe it to the future. Killing people is not the answer, the ‘collateral damage’ of murdering civilians is not acceptable, and there is no excuse.