|My grandfather, Hugh Townshend Boscawen,with my mother,|
Kathleen Patricia, shortly before the First World War
A COUPLE of years ago, I got to see my grandfather’s grave for the first time. It was the closest I’d ever been to him.
On the night of Wednesday, 3 October, 1917, four New Zealand battalions moved to assembly points in trenches at the front of the Ypres Salient in Belgium. My grandfather, Hugh Townshend Boscawen, was among them.
At 6 a.m., a thunderous British artillery barrage was unleashed on the German positions and the infantry began moving forward. Ahead, a thousand yards of sucking mire away, lay their heavily defended objective: a slight rise called the “Gravenstafel Spur”. My grandfather didn’t make it. His remains now lie in the military cemetery at Tyne Cot.
The first thing you notice about Tyne Cot, apart from the sepulchral architecture and meticulous maintenance, is the staggering scale of this chilling ghost-scape of tragedy: nearly 12,000 white stone markers, each representing a young life lost, a family broken. It took me a good half hour to find my grandfather’s “IV.E.20” cemetery address. He lay beside four other New Zealanders from the same regiment; from places I knew “back home”. They’d been killed on the same day, 4 October: W. D. Tunks, whose parents lived in Shortland Street, Auckland, was 22 when he died; beside him was Charles Ratcliffe, killed at 35. His widowed mother was in England. Albert Olson, from Hikurangi, was 36; John Alexander Ferguson from Dannevirke was just 20. At 38, my grandfather was the oldest.
|The graves of (from left) Charles Ratcliffe, my grandfather|
and John Ferguson at Tyne Cot, Belgium.
The account I’d heard of my grandfather’s death was that he’d not gone far when was wounded in the leg and fell. Stretcher-bearers pulled him from the mud and were carrying him back to a dressing station when a shrapnel shell burst overhead, killing all five. It seemed likely to me that my grandfather’s immediate “neighbours” at Tyne Cot were the heroes who died trying to save his life.
I later met a local businessman who made his living isolating and identifying unexploded munitions from the First World War. Apparently tonnes of them are dug up — very carefully — every year: shrapnel shells, mustard gas shells, high explosives… the lot. No-one lights bonfires around Ypres, he told me, in case they detonate something.
Peace… we long for it. It’s not a foolish hope: sane, contented people don’t get up in the morning, go out and risk death to devastate as much as they can; no-one wants to half-sleep through the night fearing bombs, gunfire or the sound of troops on the move.
So, war aside, what stirred in the mind of the young Nova Scotian recently imprisoned for burning a cross on the lawn of the mixed-race couple who’d been his near neighbours? What possessed whoever it was who, one dark night recently, set fire to the home of an inoffensive gay couple in rural Prince Edward Island? What was in the mind of 33 year-old Mohamed Atta as he drove an airliner into the World Trade Centre in New York? Atta was a strange, obsessive and angry individual… but, even allowing for the addition of some fiery fundamentalist rhetoric, does that explain his actions?
What triggers children in the free, wealthy, educated West to mob, beat and even to murder or rape another child, record it on cell phones and post it on online? What was in the minds of George Bush and Tony Blair, knowing what they must have known, as they unleashed overwhelming military force against a former ally: Saddam Hussein and the people of Iraq, a decision that’s killed thousands? What keeps the two Koreas so passionately, so venomously apart? What drives the resolution of a Taliban fighter in the fastnesses of Afghanistan? Or the zeal of that young NATO soldier who has gone there to face him? Is each death understood, yet still intended? How do things get this far?
Why did my grandfather leave his home in New Zealand, his wife and little daughter to find a grave at Tyne Cot? I know what he said. It was for “king and country”… but what kind of king or country sends young people to die wholesale and indiscriminately in such squalid, pointless horror?
When I was 10-11 years old, I keenly wanted to learn the bagpipes. My Scottish-born dad was a good player who’d kept a pipe band going in his infantry battalion during the Italian Campaign of the Second World War. He was awarded the Military Cross, commissioned in the field, wounded and returned to the front line: a hero. He had nightmares I was too young to understand. He sometimes played his pipes at night and, woken by the sound, I one night peeked: he had tears streaming down his face. I quietly went back to my bed.
He wouldn’t let me learn the pipes, far less teach me: the sight a practice chanter in my hands brought back too many shattered memories of young men he’d taught who’d too soon afterwards died: shot, bayoneted or chopped to pieces by Spandau bullets, blown apart by a mine, a bomb or an artillery shell, often not far from his side. At the end of his book, Cassino to Trieste: a soldier’s story (published shortly before his death at the age of 95), he wrote: “war is insanity personified… we should be working as never before for peace, friendship and love.”
Worldwide, military spending is running at more than $1.5 trillion a year. Actual conflict is not limited to just the “war on terror” that preoccupies North Americans. Dozens of squalid little gunfights, wars and insurgencies continue day by day. Last year, there were more than 50 international peacekeeping operations. Casualties of the Somalian civil war are approaching half a million; the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in India, which began in 1967, has cost more than 11,000 lives; no peace is yet in sight in Nagorno-Karabakh’s conflict with Azerbaijan, a bitter hostility that originated in an insensitive choice of a Governor-General by the British after the First World War. And eight countries have nuclear weapons: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan and Israel.
I see worrying levels of fascination with depictions of violence as entertainment and, for real, in sports. Climbing into hockey gear in Canada is tacit consent to being assaulted by anyone on the ice who’s mean and quick enough to get a hit in. It’s as though all of this is being represented as sane human behaviour.
There are clever evolutionary and genetic and sociological rationalisations of human violence but none that assert that it’s essential or inevitable. Our brains are bigger than peanuts and our emotional capacities are more subtle than “on-off”. We have imaginations, we have energies and sensitivities. We have technological skills. We should be able to shape violence out of our lives just as we’ve come very close to shaping cannibalism, human sacrifice and slavery out of our lives… genocide, capital punishment and torture are on the skids too, as far as civilisation’s progress is concerned. We could surely add wanton bloodshed to the list.
We seem to need a new form of “warfare”: something less hazardous and globally threatening than balances of military power or the militarization of space, and more cost-effective than “conventional” warfare — a pre-emptive kind of warfare: “peacefare”, in fact. Human survival depends on it.
Were some sizeable share of the vast investment that’s currently consumed by war to be redirected to peace, surely the savings in suffering and degradation would be worth it? Perhaps going so far as to sacrifice some of our disproportionate wealth would gain us greater personal security? There’s no reason why peacefare shouldn’t generate as much business and innovation as warfare, while delivering far happier opportunities for our children and their children.
One of the first obstacles is a widespread but mistaken notion that warfare’s inevitable. To accept that is to dumbly embrace humanity’s collapse. Others are the fallacies of moral, cultural or religious superiority and the idea that violence ever proves a point or delivers “better” times.
Behind violence we always find a will towards some form of domination. It’s pushing that comes to “shove”.
Dominance is bound to be present — valued as a driver of progress — in a competitive, wealth-generating society, and sustained by an unmeasured background level of aggressive impulse. And, self-assertion is necessary: everyone needs to be visible. So it’s not simple self-assertiveness that’s the problem: it’s our hubristic, cocksure, overbearing pushiness that damns us.
It exists in most societies and cultures, I think. It’s been identified as mostly a male thing. It’s also an individualistic thing: the elevation of “me” and my values over those of others. It’s a fear and insecurity thing: the idea that if I don’t look after me and mine, something will “get” us all. And it’s a fear of otherness thing. And it can get out of hand.
We must stop making sweeping judgements. Where incompatible cultural priorities crowd into conflict, economics cannot continue to be the over-riding determinant of survival. Peacefare would require us to foster the mutual interests of nations, rather than deepen their conflicting ones. We don’t need to push each other to the edges of our capacities to survive.
Best practice guidelines for checking aggressive behaviour among children boil down to setting clear boundaries and addressing social skill deficits. Maybe we grown-ups should give ourselves some clear guidelines and polish our social skills.
To me, two little things do seem readily available:
• The first “can do” is curiosity. Curiosity about other people, other cultures, other ways of seeing and understanding, is a social skill… an art. In this year’s LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture, the Aga Khan promoted pluralism, putting it this way: “Pluralism is a process and not a product… a mentality, a way of looking at a diverse and changing world.” The image he suggested was eloquent, adding to harmony the idea of musical counterpoint: “In counterpoint, each voice follows a separate musical line, but always as part of a single work of art, with a sense both of independence and belonging.”
• The other is “satiation”. Fish live in a predator-prey world, yet you’ll see prey fish swim unconcerned past a shark that’s already eaten. Zebra will graze near a pride of lions that have made a kill already. Fear is abated by satiation (getting full). But we’ve found ways to stay in hunting mode, making consumption endless: with money we can postpone consumption while we continue to hoard the potential to consume. Debt lets us have now what we can’t pay for until later. Our money (or debt) can gobble up (or be eroded by) interest even as we sleep, while economists tell us a lack of growth — stability — is failure. This is a tragic human failing: it puts society in an edgy state of constant volatility and, excused satiation, we’ve become accustomed to near toxic levels of ambient fear: genetically sociable creatures living in vulnerably solitary ways. We need to “lighten up”, delight in what we have and let go a little.
Curiosity invites us to explore the full beauty of the rich and complicated composition that is humanity.