The Movement for the Abolition of War

The Movement for the Abolition of War

In this short, deeply-personal article, John Hills movingly considers both our complicity with, and attempts to rationalise, modern society’s proximity to manufactured Armageddon.

“If War is the Answer it must be a very Stupid Question” is certainly an eye-catching postcard that the Movement for the Abolition of War (MAW) produces in bright, canary yellow.

The problem with the wording of the card is not that the sentiment is wrong, nor that it’s not sufficiently challenging but rather does it make anyone stop and think?

In other words, are we just reaching out, and holding hands with one another in yet another gathering of the persuaded and like-minded? May we be in danger of what modern parlance calls “virtue signalling” – telling people more about one’s own ‘higher moral stance’ than the nature of the reality that is furiously trying to be signalled. This may well trigger many people’s internal ‘off-switch’ and they cease attending to the significance of what is being said. Surely this is exact the opposite of what we want or intend? But catching reflective attention is always a challenge. 

This process of ‘mind screening’ or editing to filter out unpleasant or unacceptable realities is a well understood process in psychology and propaganda. It’s used in all areas of human communication. It is certainly not ‘rocket science’. The Military uses this knowledge adroitly to sustain themselves an advantageous position for their interests when it comes to bargaining for political funding. Our Armed Forces in the UK are not, of course, named the ‘Ministry of Aggression’. To call it so would storm the psychic defences of our population too brutally; though this is a more exact description of what they do – four times in the past 35 years by my reckoning. Currently they defend our borders against clusters of bedraggled asylum seekers seeking to come ashore in the hope of a better life.

So screening and filtering reality in our metaphorical ‘mind’s eye’ is also called our ‘defensive structures’ or ‘defensive shield’. Like the eyelid on the eye itself, it is there for the purpose of organ protection. In this case of our mental consciousness it is to prevent being flooded with ‘dismal stories’, ‘bad news’ – that excess of the ‘unmanageable information’ of suffering, distress and injustice. As T S Eliot correctly wrote in his 1922 poem the ‘Wasteland’: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Indeed, we cannot.

We have many ways of dealing with the tension of this. Meditators, mystics and contemplatives ‘face it down’ by what’s called ‘foregrounding’ the dark and tragic our consciousness – usually through some spiritually based reflection, accompanied by silence.

Other ways are to put faith in those who present themselves as capable, strong and more discerning about a situation than we believe ourselves to be. This may be fine for it is exactly what small children do through trust in an adult care giver. They are emotionally and cognitively vulnerable so need an adult to a point and time in their lives to help interpret and mediate the world for them.

However, this phenomenon is also a licence for scoundrels and the unscrupulous to take our universal and ‘all age’ needs for emotional trust and faith “to the cleaners” as the saying goes. There are many ‘wolves’ in the world to complement our ‘little Red Riding Hood’ repertoire (and I should add wolves tend to display more tender social behaviour than some of our own species!) For some adults such highly developed, trusting dependency is a compliant evasion from thinking freely, clearly and for oneself. This is usually disastrous for we easily enslave ourselves while, at the same time, deceiving ourselves that it is not so.

‘Fear’, ‘terror’ and ‘anxiety’ is both bait and glue by which we become ensnared. In the 1950’s Dwight D Eisenhower (no pacifist he, but his impressive military achievements at least conferred some authority of wisdom) coined the word of multiples, the ‘military-industrial complex’. It is worth revisiting his words in his final public speech in 1961 before leaving office as President:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

How worryingly far have we travelled from this! Such words today seem naive in their trustingness. 

The political classes all over the world have got into the act and increased the multiples. It is now the politico-military-industrial complex. If you add ‘economics’ to the mix (since livelihood and prosperity is based on this military-industrial productiveness) we have a four part multiple all adding up, potentially, to a world of ‘compulsive violence-addiction’. From ‘threat’ to ‘fear’ to ‘defensive arming’ to ‘offensive posturing’ to ‘cheer-leading’ to ‘aggressive exchange’. This ‘vicious circle’, with its pattern of behaviour can set solid into a chain reaction; its ‘hidden persuaders’ are the ‘power-dealers’ and ‘power-mongers’ who generate the fear, the terror and the anxiety; they are then quickly around with the ‘remedy-fix’. This, surprising no one, is increased ‘defensive spending’ with yet greater ‘offensive potential’. More “bangs for your bucks….and more bucks for those bangs” as the accurate if crude description has it.

So, we are led sleepwalking into bankrolling more and more expenditure on vacuous but deadly status symbols like Trident, anaesthetised, like Odysseus’ crew by the enchantress Circe of the E-P-M-I Complex. It is we who are ‘pawns in their game’ as Bob Dylan sang of the Southern White supremacists resisting the Black civil rights movement in the 60’s. The ‘Complex’ is exactly what Freud, Jung and Adler had in mind in using the term – a stuck, fixated seemingly intractable psychological ‘knot’.

I had first hand living experience of this deadly ‘game without end’ from the late 60’s when three members of my family (including myself briefly) worked on the British submarine based nuclear deterrent, Polaris. As a piece of ordinance there was just no mistaking its awesome nature! It was a living embodiment of the ‘Doomsday Machine’, to reference Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove” that “saw off creation”. As its dark, black host submarine slithered and insinuated its way up the Gare Loch just in front of our home I did often wonder what the hell was the point of anything?

Peacekeeper? Well the UK has been involved in at least four overseas wars since then and Polaris’ successor, Trident, has had no deterrent impact whatsoever in preventing these. These wars, for different reasons, were “wars of aggression” not “defence” but casuists fixated by ‘numbers of angels dancing on pinheads’ might seek to take issue. I care not for Trident is just too fearsome a weapon of total annihilation that only a psychopathic megalomaniac would consider using it or threatening to use it. An ultimate ‘Trump card’, one might say. 

One of the most moving moments in my career in psychotherapy happened several years ago. However, for various reasons I have chosen to keep it secret. At the time I was teaching family therapy to a group of trainees at London’s Tavistock Clinic. One of my tutees was a young woman – my daughter’s age – and a clinical psychologist from Moscow. She wanted to learn the principles of therapeutic work with families to reduce conflicts and their problem presentations to each other. 

I have had so many different thoughts about the significance of this strange and synchronous year’s encounter then and now. I can even get briefly tearful from time to time, thinking about the situation. 

I could say nothing to her at the time about this convergence of our two very different and separate lives. For a time at the height of the ‘Cold War’ she represented ‘the enemy’.

I wanted to say:

“Does it ever occur to you, Natasha (not her actual name), that there was a time when my family could have been partly responsible for annihilated your family and most of Moscow into the bargain? Incredible, isn’t it? Our Navy had you all targeted, in our sights and ready to release our own ‘Apocalyptic Doomsday Machine’. It only needed an alerting warning signal, checking through a few codes a command and the gentle pressure on some kind of button and all the ‘fire, flames and infernos of Hell’ would have been visited on you on your family. The Moscow you knew would be a wasteland, a desert bereft of anyone or any life. You and I would never have met and known each other. Awesome and terrifying isn’t it? Just a micro-fraction of a slip, within an error encased in a mistake, and that would have been that. THE END. There would be no second showing.”

I lost contact with Natasha shortly after the year finished. I have no idea where she is now, but I hope she is well and practising some kind of useful work with families.

I have often wondered about how come the meeting? How come my family, and I assume most of hers are still here and following world news? Whatever the nature of the divine and the holy, how is it the ‘Doomsday Machine’ has never gone off since the tragic carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How has humanity so far escaped from its own potential to self-destruct as a species and take down the beauteous earth and the wondrous complexity of creation with it? These are the unspeakable and unanswerable questions which just leave me both startled and bemused.

John Hills is a long-standing member of Canterbury Meeting, and a role-holder in the Movement for the Abolition of War.

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