Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
But it’s only been 96 years! I’ve just beaten you to your first thought on realising that this column hinges upon today being Armistice Day in the centenary year of the start of World War One.
Last week it was the T-shirt. This week – not that it hasn’t already been for months at the Tower of London – it’s the poppy. Most symbols like these are well-intentioned (even if, in the case of the former, a gimmick), and can be constructive. But we mustn’t rely upon them. I wear a poppy because it’s charitable, and seems respectful; I don’t do it to make a statement of any kind. Except, maybe, that it would be doing so not to wear one – which does bother me a little.
By expressing his preference for wearing a white poppy, a priest I know has ignited an email debate throughout the Northern college where he’s chaplain. (He exemplifies its leadership’s tendency towards Guardian-style social justice: nice people, though I have been known to argue with them in the bar…) This pacifist alternative first germinated in the 1930s, and causes controversy annually. The ensuing college correspondence – from diverse standpoints – has been impressively polite, yet, whilst it does seem excessive to claim offence at such a symbol, it is frustrating the way in which some of its wearers try to claim a monopoly on goodness.
You don’t have to call yourself a pacifist to dislike war. In the same way, you don’t have to be a feminist to want equality. These blanket terms obfuscate and gerrymander to the point of complacent neutrality. And they’re not blanket terms, anyway. So, you’re a pacifist, are you? What do you mean by that? Are you a Buddhist-type pacifist, or an anarchist-type? Absolute or contingent? Of course, these are only terms, too – but it has to be bigger than shouting that war is barbarous, and that we should all love each other.
It’s also not sufficient to plumb the “Oh, but the First World War was such a waste of life,” trench. Of course it was. Does anyone think otherwise? But this doesn’t mean it wasn’t a justified war. To declare that, we would need to consider properly its causes and conduct, not least: Germany’s escalating militarism and expansionism following unification, the concurrent cross-European obsession with armament and empire, the Balkans’ crises, the German invasion and killing of civilians in Belgium and Luxembourg, and so much more. But this is irrelevant to a discussion about pacifism. Even if every war that had ever been fought were unjust, this wouldn’t entail that we should immediately oppose war in principle.
As an abstract claim that state enforcement is never necessary, pacifism can seem terribly luxurious coming from the armchair of our secular democracy. Particularly whilst knowing that when we do need this enforcement, it’s there. And so it is! It’s there now – in the actions of our security services, police force, and troops abroad and at home. Also, we must consider people apart from ourselves, and times apart from our own. Alongside our right to self defence, I believe that the state has a duty to provide the protection that individuals can’t provide for themselves. For me, this happens naturally: living in a country like ours, we gain a shield by sacrificing of some of our freedoms. This guards us within our society, against insurgents ranging from disease to illiteracy – and outside it, against those who wish us harm.
More than ever, we need protecting. In the past, we could hope that those with whom we went to war might respect certain rules, might abide by some form of just war theory. Post 9/11, we often don’t even know who our opponent is, or that they exist. The home-grown jihadi can chain-smoke throwaway mobiles, and hop on budget flights to training grounds and war zones. And this brings us to the more complicated issue of interventionism, and whether or how we should help those in other states who need protection, too.
Although school history textbooks are distended with photos of Nazi concentration camps in the hope of preventing similar atrocities, we are all aware that they continue today. Yet the Arab Spring has reminded us that our enemy’s enemy isn’t necessarily our friend. This kind of friendship can – often with the help of a little moral relativism – lead to the toleration of terrorism.
As a Conservative, I am opposed to unnecessary change, because – in our relatively free and liberal country – values, laws, and institutions have developed in a sensible, socially beneficial way. These institutions corrode when ideological change is imposed upon them. To me, liberty is worth fighting for – when there’s no other option – at home and abroad.
Even if you’re a pacifist, war happens. And it has happened, and will do. A century ago, those ancestors of yours (this must include almost all of us: globally, 65 million fought) were still thinking towards Christmas. Maybe this is really why I’m wearing my poppy. Not just because I accept that sometimes force is the only solution. Or even because I think that absolute pacifism is idealistic and impossible. But because those men have another four years of fighting ahead of them – from today – whether you like it or not – for us. And their descendants did the same some 20 years later, continue to do so now, and will do so again. It is, simply, the inappreciable benefit of living in a state which protects you in the most just way it can.
The red poppy represents this, and, in that, it’s not enough. But then again, symbols never are.