During World War 1, a man armed only with a revolver and stick destroyed a German machine gun and its killed its crew. When attempting to take out a second machine gun he was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
That’s courage, the kind of courage that wins medals, and is remembered.
Yet, it also takes courage to say no, to be a conscientious objector. The men who refused to take part in the First World War were often ridiculed, shunned and even their families were treated with abuse. Although conscientious objection was legal, men had to go before tribunals, and some were imprisoned.
These are different kinds of courage, both with roots in compassion. John Meikle, who took on the machine gun crew, did so to protect his comrades’ lives. The men who refused to go to war did so because they believed it was wrong to take any lives.
In some ways, John Meikle’s courage could be seen as “conventional.” Certainly, it’s what was seen as masculine then, and to some extent still is: fighting for your country, standing up for yourself and your comrades. Along with around 250,000 other boys, he lied about his age to join the army at sixteen. What motivates a boy to do such a thing? According to the BBC: many were gripped by patriotic fervour, sought escape from grim conditions at home or wanted adventure. Of course, their adventure was as grim as any conditions they’d left.
In 2004, Harry Patch, the last British army survivor of WW1, met Charles Kuentz, Germany’s last surviving veteran. Afterwards, Harry said, “We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak?”
When confronted by a German soldier, Harry shot him in the shoulder. This didn’t stop the German, and Harry had seconds to decide: “Should I obey my oath to King and country or follow the law of Moses: Thou shalt not kill.” He shot the man in the knee and ankle, and hoped the injured soldier could go home to his family.
Around the time Harry Patch met Charles Kuentz, I saw him interviewed on television. What I remember most about Harry was the image of him in wheelchair on a beach and these words: “At the end, peace was settled round a table, so why the hell couldn’t they do that at the start without losing millions of men?”
Why the hell indeed?
It’s probably true that not all wars could have been prevented by sitting round a table. It’s hard to imagine Hitler would have done that. Yet it’s probably also true that if the Treaty of Versailles had been less harsh on Germany, the resentment that led to Hitler’s rise to power would not had happened.
If the aftermath of World War 1 bred the conditions for the next war, its build-up had four main causes:
- European countries forming alliances with each other.
- the arms race
- imperialism (European countries came into conflict with each other as they conquered colonies,)
- nationalism (a belief: “my country is better than others”)
These were the fuel for the fire; the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the spark that set it alight.
Looking at that list, it’s not hard to see parallels today. Historians point to the similarity between European alliances and NATO or other modern agreements.
Arms-building continues, and historian Margaret MacMillan sees parallels between modern day terrorism and the activities of communist and anarchist groups in the early 20th century, who believed they were fighting to achieve a better world.
Imperialism today is mostly through economic means rather than by conquering other countries, though every now and then a western country (usually the USA) finds a reason to invade another country to “support” them. In the UK, we recently had the publication of the Chilcot report – a document that took 2.6 million words and seven years to conclude what most people long suspected: “the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”
While the other causes of WW1 were largely in the hands of rulers, nationalism is of the people. It often promises a solution to problems, gives a sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger. It also gives a sense of being superior, better than others. It is a form of tribalism and is rife in the world today.
It is to tribalism that Trump appeals with his rants against Mexicans, it’s what some prominent Leave campaigners appealed to with their promises to control immigration. Tribalism is behind much (most?) of the violence and intolerance throughout our world.
Tribalism leads us to protect “our people” and to defend against others. It might have served our ancestors when the world was sparsely populated and the main threat came from large animals, but now, unless we break free of it, it could destroy us.
It makes no sense to believe that because of an accident of birth location, skin colour or sexual orientation, I am somehow superior to you. It makes no sense to believe that because I, or my ancestors, came to live on a particular patch of land I am better than you.
Tribalism infiltrates every one of us, and as long as we believe we are superior to any other group of people (including Trump and his supporters, or terrorists) we are at risk. As long as we avoid seeing our own weaknesses and intolerances, we will go on blaming other people.
Let’s not pretend we’re prefect, or that we’ve never had a tribal thought or felt a tribal emotion. Let’s have courage to look inside, to notice those thoughts – and to love ourselves for them. As long as we hate any aspect of ourselves, we hate it in others too. Hatred doesn’t lead to love. When we hate ourselves, we feel shame; we hide. It feels so bad we want to lash out and find someone else to blame. We need courage to be compassionate with ourselves, and to extend that compassion to others.
You will have heard of Malala Yousafzai, the young Nobel Peace prize-winner, who was shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan. Malala and her family now live in the UK, and she continues to work for peace and women’s rights.
You may not know that Aware Girls, a group of which Malala was an early member, continues to work to promote human rights in Pakistan. Much of their work is using education to dissuade young people from joining extremist organisations. They work in deeply conservative parts of Pakistan controlled by the Taliban, but instead of using aggressive or confrontational tactics, they arrange closed meetings with audiences of men chosen from the local area after being identified as liberal-minded. The young women who address these men do so sensitively, aiming to gain them as allies. Men can then receive training to work with other men to further equality and challenge extremism. I have little doubt that much of Aware Girls’ success is down to their respect and compassion for the people they reach out to.
Showing respect for people, having compassion for them, even when they hold views that are abhorrent, is the only way we will ever create lasting peace. For all the fury at Trump and other extreme right-wing politicians, very few change their minds. Instead, they justified in feeling attacked.
The young women in Aware Girls show a different route, and offer us hope. In the video below, so does Waleed Aly. He responds to a call by talk show host, Sonia Kruger, to ban Muslims from migrating to Australia. Since her comment, Kruger has received a barrage of abuse. Aly doesn’t add to that. Instead he says, “Sonia Kruger isn’t evil. She’s scared and she’s trying to make sense of the world. Yesterday, she admitted to not feeling safe. How do you think she feels now? And how do you expect her to react?” (I recommend you watch the full video – everything he says is worth listening to.)
It takes courage to respond as Aly did. His is not the usual response to comments such as Kruger’s, but he’s right when he says that people are afraid, and that to condemn them just perpetuates: “the inertia of outrage that spins the Gravitron that we’re all on.”
Let’s not do that. Let’s have the courage to be compassionate.
Let’s have the courage to be compassionate.Tweet
Finally, while writing about compassion is unlikely to ever win us medals, it has won me a blogging award! I am delighted to have received one of BlogHer’s Voices of the Year Honouree Awards for the post I wrote in January 2015 inviting people to join me in writing about Compassion for the very first 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion link-up.
The awards ceremony is in Los Angeles in August, and since I live too far away to attend, I am very pleased that Roshni of American Indian Mom will be going in my place. You can read more about the awards here.
Photograph of Harry Patch by Jim Ross (English Wikipedia) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
This post is written for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion’s July link-up.
This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a better world with a focus on Compassion and Courage.
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