The ‘Pity of War’ can mean different things to different people, here you can read some of the meanings it can have to others:
The ‘Pity of War’ Memorial marks those civilians who have lost their lives or suffered as a result of war. The effects of war on the civilian population are all around us, in the form of flattened cities and the streams of refugees. People lose their homes, children can no longer go to school, hospitals are destroyed. In many cases, not just the physical but also the psychological effects of war will linger for many years and indeed a whole lifetime. The Memorial is designed not just to express our sorrow for those who have died and suffered but also to raise awareness of the wider issues. What are the true costs of war? Are these a price that we are in fact prepared to pay? Is war an inevitable part of human activity, or something that we will one day regard as outdated, like slavery? What implications do more modern forms of warfare, such as drones, have for the civilian population? There are no easy answers to these questions. Views will differ widely. It is, however, only right that those who are ultimately being asked to bear the burdens of war should examine that cost as honestly as possible. The Memorial challenges us to do so.
Violent conflict occurs when all other means of conciliation have failed – this can be between individuals, small or large groups, most often countries, where it is generally described as war. It is as a result of any war where death and injury physical or psychological may very well occur that the emotion of pity is revealed. This sense is not confined to the pacifist, to non-combatants and to those caring for the wounded, but to those undertaking military tasks, whether conscripted or professional.
Pity or sadness call it what you will is an emotion shared by almost all of humanity to varying degrees and different circumstances will arouse it. At the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire there are 100s of memorials of a military kind, where relatives, friends and others can lament the fallen, but none to the countless, largely forgotten victims of violence. The Pity of War Memorial will it is hoped provide opportunities for quiet reflection in the widest possible sense.
The Pity of War is neither solely nor mainly about the past, but is about the present and future. Violence is inherent in who we are. The project is not about changing human nature, but it is about how we in the future conduct our affairs so as to reduce the chances of violent conflict. When it does occur, we ask the question, ‘How can so-called collateral damage, which dehumanises and devalues human life, be avoided or even eliminated?’
There are in fact two questions, neither of which is new, but there is renewed urgency in answering them in the modern world for reasons suggested below.
How do we reduce the chances of violent conflict?
How should we conduct war when all efforts at conciliation have failed?
People of different faiths and none may contest the assumption in the second question that war is inevitable in the conduct of human affairs, but the two questions asked may lead inevitably to a new dispensation as to how we conduct human affairs in the future. Inevitably, pressures wrought by climate change, economic competition, reduction of resources and other tensions will lead to the temptation that violent acts are the only solution and moreover the ‘right one’. Surely we can consider a different way?
This is the wider purpose of the project and it is hoped that it will engage with all people in a variety of ways to bring about changes in approach to conflict. Both questions have ethical aspects and moral ones, too. Answers to the first question reduce the enormities, though not the humanity, posed by the second.
The first question requires answers not just from theoreticians, learned articles and books or even sound bites from the Today programme, but by national and international engagement, involving all age groups, peace activists, religious groups, the military and others, leading we hope to new ways of thinking about ‘war’ and indeed ‘peace’.
I remember in the 1960s taking up a voluntary post in Bolton, Lancashire, as an act of loyalty to Queen and country, with the Civil Defence Force playing war games in a bunker underneath the town hall. These war games consisted of playing out scenarios, in the safety of a radioactively protected cellar, had an atomic bomb been dropped on the town. Thinking about my behaviour then, as one of the possible survivors, fills me with repugnance about the selfishness of these acts.
We see during the next two years opportunities in schools, universities, institutions of all kinds, through the media and elsewhere consideration of violent conflict, its causes and after effects, which gives cause for reflection on Exodus 34:7 ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation’ which might be considered as the residual memory of hatred and memory of past wrongs, as among tribes, races and ethnic groups and nations today.
The task is enormous, but both the Talmud and the Quran, provide hope: ‘Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’.
The Pity of War project is in my opinion in two parts. Firstly, it is about installing a sculpture, already in existence, at the National Memorial Arboretum to commemorate the millions of civilians who die in war but who are not, at present, remembered there. This sculpture could be a way of raising awareness of the horror of war in the hearts and minds of the many visitors to the Arboretum, young and old, from many parts of the world as well as from the UK. Secondly, the Pity of War project is about the millions of civilians who survive but who suffer the results of conflict both in their outer lives and basic needs, and in their inner lives including post traumatic stress that can continue for many years. In fact, all civilians suffer the fear of war and the stress of how to bring about peace, even if they are not in a present conflict.
So the Pity of War project is an organization that continues to be active. It is not a campaigning organization to prompt a particular point of view. It is an organization to find ways of stimulating awareness, through freedom of speech, of what it is to move forward toward more vibrant outer and inner lives that can begin to cope with the challenges of conflict and ways to peace. This means finding methods of prompting discussion and asking questions such as what fuels conflict whether, for example, this be economic, cultural, political, the power of elites etc.? What is a vibrant community and does this change and evolve? Do we rely only upon experts, or have we an inner wisdom that can develop, from which each of us can draw and express the nature of our awareness?
This kind of awareness cannot be determined beforehand, except to say that it relies upon how our hearts and minds can grow, through free exchange of thoughts, feelings and experience, toward a greater understanding of what is involved and possible ways forward.
Having been in the cadet force at school, the officers’ training corp at university I have had a taste of the military life. I know how exciting it is to play around with bits of kit and test one’s wit, strength and endurance against others. I have also seen, but not participated in, the excitement and fun of combative video games.
Set against this, I have seen documentaries, news reports and archive footage of the horrors of war. I remember the propaganda of the Cold War; awful first hand reports of the Balkan conflict and its genocide, as well as Rwanda and its genocide. Indeed we are living through it right now, in the Middle East and the extremism that this is fuelling. We seem to be careering towards ever more aggressive approaches to problems, most of which are to do with inequality, power and greed.
In the face of this rhetoric and action by politicians, the common person deserves a voice. Especially the common person who has no choice in the matter. We still argue about how many tens (or hundreds) of thousands of civilians were killed in the Iraq war. They had no choice. I want there to be a lightning rod which will act as a focus for social movements to acknowledge this moral burden, educate people (especially children) in alternative approaches, and honour those who were injured or killed needlessly, and those left behind to grieve for them.
This project is a positive, simple and collaborative one. It is designed to entrain the moral views of many people who would otherwise not think of it, or have no way to contribute to the discussion. I see it as the beginning of, and catalyst to, a movement of social responsibility. I am keen to be a part of such a movement. The NMA, which largely appears to glorify war, is the obvious place to site this gentle but powerful antidote. It is based on the human experience of individuals, not the ideology of politicians, generals or nations.