From a culture of war to a culture of peace

The time has run out for traditional military answers. Ours is a culture of war, but cultures can change. We need education in peace and in international understanding, as so much more

Bruce Kent
15 March 2010

Not long ago I went hunting with friends in a cemetery in West Hampstead. We were looking for the memorial to a man I had only just heard of, Sir William Randal Cremer. Why? Because he was the first Briton to be awarded, in 1903, the Nobel peace prize. We found his memorial at last, covered in bramble bushes. On the list of famous people at the entrance to the cemetery his name does not even appear.  A hero of peace, who spent much of his life promoting the notion that international disputes can and should be settled by arbitration not war, has been forgotten. The names of Douglas Bader, Leonard Cheshire, Earl Haig or General Montgomery for instance would ring bells at once with anyone of my generation and in the minds of much younger people too. Cremer’s, not at all.

I was reminded once again in that cemetery that ours is a culture of war and violence, not of peace. That this is so seems obvious. The males of our Royal family appear endlessly in uniform. Their rite of passage is service in the armed forces. Public events and processions are often dominated by the military. Remembrance Sunday, when we are all urged think of ‘our dead’, has become the next best thing to a national holy day of obligation. No TV presenter or politician would dream of appearing without a red poppy. Displays of military aircraft are ideal for family outings and picnics. Major cathedrals and churches are rich in military memorials. Military chaplains have military rank, salaries and pensions. War films and war stories are staple media diet. War toys are still acceptable gifts for children. School cadet corps are still normal in, but not only in, ‘public schools’. Recruiting teams make regular school visits. We are now even to have a national ‘armed forces day’ in order to promote greater respect for the Services. Gross media violence is now normal entertainment.

Cultures change and it ought to be our business to make ours one of peace, not war.  Without demeaning or disparaging the bravery of the military or their role in our society, how do we reduce their high significance in our national psyche and put peace in pride of place?

Accept that cultures do change, and the next thing we have to be convinced of is that we ourselves can promote such change. Racism and anti-semitism exist still, but are no longer respectable. Smoking was once so normal that non-smokers were made to feel wimpish.  Not now. Homophobia was open and almost normal. Not now. Cultures change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. And we can help make it change for the better.

Where to start?                           

Public events and processions, for instance, do not have to have an exclusively military character. By all means let the military have a part to play, but if the qualification is bravery then why not representatives of other national services as well?  UN peacekeepers? The fire service? Coastguards? Lifeboat and ambulance crews? The police?  Perhaps we should just have one major National Bravery day on which we honour all those who have put their lives at risk in public service.

What of schools and colleges? My hope is that one day, as consciousness of global citizenship develops, every pupil moving into a secondary school will be given their own personal copy of both the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Citizenship is now on the curriculum, but it is rarely thought of as international citizenship. The Final Report of the 1978 first special UN Session of Disarmament called specifically for education on issues of peace and war. Most people have no idea that there ever was such a session or what it said about public education. The UN Charter itself is a largely unknown document.

School and college careers rooms should not only offer military job opportunities. Parents should be asked if jobs in firms exporting arms should be advertised at all. Careers rooms should also provide information about jobs, paid and voluntary, in the peace, justice and human rights fields, and information about peace-directed higher education. Too often today the study of foreign languages is neglected.

Perhaps every school should twin with another in a country where there is or could be violent conflict. Too often raising money for projects in poorer countries is the beginning and end of international understanding. Why do we have such an unequal world? is the question that needs to be put.

There are some countries now promoting the idea of a Ministry of Peace. What a good idea. An official government body responsible for monitoring the ways in which policies across the board promote or damage peace prospects.  Such a body might challenge some of the dogmas which still dominate public thinking – for instance that WWII was the only way of stopping Hitler and the Bomb was the only way to end WWII. It is these myths which still dominate much thinking on war and peace.

National holidays could do with some additions. Perhaps we could add some specifically peaceful ones to our present list. May 15 is International Conscientious Objectors day. The UN Charter was signed on June 26, 1945. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted unanimously on the December 10, 1948. Those three additions would do for a start. Scrap Bank holidays and replace then with something more meaningful.

Place names are not sacred and some might well be changed. It is probably too late to do anything about Trafalgar Square or Waterloo Station. But what about Greenham Common park for the land left over after the Olympics or Douglas Home stadium in honour of the British officer who went to prison in WWII rather than open fire on civilians in 1944?

Many museums could also refocus. Some are already doing so. London’s Imperial War Museum for instance regularly hosts peace history conferences and has exhibitions which are far from warlike. The National Army museum not long ago had an exhibition of pictures of facial injuries inflicted in the First World War. No one looking at those pictures could be moved to think of anything but the horror, the futility and the pity of war.

Recently I visited the Hiroshima museum which records the disaster of August 6,1945. No one could ever talk casually about nuclear war who has seen such an exhibition.

So many other institutions could help to promote a culture of peace. Local authorities have their own independence. Some already have created and published peace trails around their towns and cities to locations with peace significance. The one in London starts with the Gandhi memorial in Tavistock Square. Mayors for Peace is a great initiative, coming as it did from the Mayor of Hiroshima. It has now become a worldwide movement of local authorities.

Peace is too important to be left to governments

This is a good time for change. It does not take a PhD to understand that globally we face threats to our real security to which there is no traditional military answer. Terrorism is not the only such threat. Security for most people means a supportive family, a safe place to live, employment, good health care, protection in old age and food on the table.

Yes we take reasonable precautions against burglars, but getting on well with the neighbours is far more important than arming each house with weapons which, if ever used, would destroy all the houses in the street. 

Perhaps every university course, arts or science, should have an essential international peace component. Scientists have to learn to be willing to refuse military research, especially when it is aimed at the development of weapons of mass destruction. Would-be lawyers and our courts should be able to develop and give force to international as well as national law to this end.

Churches might re-examine some of their language of liturgy, hymns and old testament partiality for one people. There could be a more internationalist perspective to Remembrance Day ceremonies. It is an ideal day to make the central message, ‘honour all those who have died in war  by working for the elimination of war itself ‘. Wars, whatever they tell you, are neither inevitable or compulsory.

Anti-poverty and environmental protection groups must make it clear that war is a major cause of poverty and of environmental damage. Global warming is in part a consequence of military activity.  In its turn it will also become a cause of war. Too often, development groups avoid foregrounding the fact that war is one of the greatest if not the greatest cause of world poverty.

The current struggle for essential resources like water will cause conflict and the flow of millions of refugees. Resource conflicts will lead to war unless nonviolent systems of law and justice are in place. The trillion and a quarter dollars spent every year on the world’s military is indeed what President Eisenhower once called ‘a theft from those who hunger…’.

There are 27000 nuclear weapons in the world today, each a possible Hiroshima, and every one of them accident prone. There have already been several major accidents, amongst dozens of lesser ones, which have taken the world to the very edge of nuclear disaster. This is the security of the mad house.

Lord Louis Mountbatten can have the last word. In 1979, describing the nuclear arms race, he recalled the old Roman precept, ’If you want peace prepare for war’ and described it as ‘absolute nuclear nonsense’. He broke with the culture of his own military past, risked unpopularity and had the courage to explore new directions. That is a task for all of us, if we are serious about building a culture of peace. Culture has to change. We are all part of the process of making that change happen.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData