The Pacifist and the Poppy

It’s ANZAC day, a special date in our calendar down in this part of the world.  If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll need to know that ANZAC stands for the combined services of Australia and New Zealand in the two World Wars.  Together, we joined with our allies to fight off the threats in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and closer to home.  On this date, we commemorate the fallen ANZAC soldiers.  It’s a day that stops the nation.  People attend dawn services and wear the red poppy on their lapels, sometimes alongside the service medals of generations gone before. The red poppy is the symbol of this day, as it reminds us of the battle of Flanders Field, now covered in red poppies.  A stark visual reminder of the bloodshed and lost souls of war.

Picture of a red poppy standing taller than the poppies in the field beyond. A true 'Flanders Field' full of red poppies to symbolise fallen soldiers.

I have always been horrified by war. The thought of having to go away to fight when you probably don’t want to.  Lucky for me, the only ‘traumatic echo’ I have of war, is the commando comic images burned into my childhood memories: young men being blasted into the beyond. I can’t fully comprehend that real soldiers spent their last days killing people and suffering as they watched their comrades injured or wiped off the face of the earth.  It’s a strange kind of political game I have never, ever understood.  I blame patriarchy and the male mentality for believing war is a solution to state issues. I will never sit with the ‘glory’ of war and I consider it to be a pointless, criminal waste of life.

My brother, when we were growing up, was fascinated by war, what little boys weren’t?  Where we lived in Papua New Guinea, war relics were easy to find.  There was a mount in our town of Lae, that was tunnelled out and used by the Japanese as a base hospital.  As a result, the land around the town was littered with artifacts of war.  Unexploded shells, bullets, and even, in the jungles beyond our town, crashed warplanes. I remember two particular finds.  A Japanese war helmet with a bullet hole in it.  And somehow, more poignantly, an Allies service food bowl with it’s fork rusted right through the rim. When the war ended, rather than surrender, the Japanese blew up the entrances and died inside. And like any antipodean school child, I have heard the stories about Japanese atrocities, I’ve read the books and been horrified by the cruelties inflicted upon Japanese-held prisoners of war.  But there were human souls inside that mountain who died because of war, too.  They died because they were soldier-pawns in a bigger game of war, played out by bigger men making decisions in rooms far from the fighting.

I just don’t get it.

We commemorate the bravery of those in the war effort.  Not all war effort, but WW1 and WW2.  These particular wars seem to have a sanitised, mythical greatness about them in our national psyche.  I do feel it was unthinkably brave to ‘do your duty’ if you were so unfortunate enough to be born in a time of war. And so they were. Brave beyond comprehension.  I can’t imagine the incredible damage done to so many psyches, faced with the gritty duty of firing on other human beings. My mother told me that my grandfather had a drinking problem because he had gone to war. He was away when she was born; a brand new husband and father who returned to his fledgling little family, a vastly different person.  I wonder who he would have been without that war. Who she would have been?

How far does warfare reach into the hearts and minds of the generations beyond?

Yes, we should remember them. But what is that remembrance for if we do not also begin to ask the questions that no one considers patriotic.  Why? Why did it happen?  How can we stop it happening now? And it is!  There are wars happening all over this planet, does it matter less because it is not our family members firing the bullets or taking them?  Does it matter that one of the greatest weapons of war across Africa is sexual assault and female mutilation?

War is not the only way to solve problems.  We are a race of intelligent souls, there are alternatives. There are radically different ways of thinking that could lead to a better future.

I mean no disrespect to our fallen ancestors; the terrible cost exacted by war on family after family. What I mean to say is that I can’t believe that we cannot get our act together and look for peace. Let us not create another reason for another commemoration.  That is the reason why, on this day,

I Remember Them.

I guess that makes me a pacifist.  How about you?  Do you have feelings about this? How is it that commemorations are our solemn duty, but having the conversations about how to stop it all, is not?

War. What is it Good For?

Absolutely nothing.

I rarely get a chance to watch the news these days.  When I do, what I see there fills me with such sadness and shame.  Are human beings really so far removed from one another that killing, hurting, and destroying each other is acceptable? Where have we gone wrong?

It makes me think of all the children I have ever taught.  Even the most damaged souls, kids who knew nothing but violence from the moment they were born… kids who had every reason to want to kick back at life, at anyone, for letting bad things happen to them. Every single one of the small humans I ever taught had an irrepressible need for laughter, for peace.  Structure and calm. Creative expression, acknowledgement, support. Every one of them responded to a positive approach.  If someone believed in them and their ability, they were confident to believe in themselves.  That was my job, as a grown up in their lives. My job to give them a calm, positive place to be happy, productive and learn.  To show them that they meant something to me.

In my first year of teaching, Nine-Eleven happened.  As I got ready for school that morning, I listened to my alarm clock radio with horror.  Things like the twin towers attack had occurred before in history, in times of war.  But in my lifetime, Nine-Eleven was the first time I was cognisant of a risk that our whole world might once again fall into war.  How naive of me …have we ever not been at war, somewhere on our planet?  This event seemed to reach the doorstep of the middle class west.  How privileged I have been to escape war.  How afraid I was, on that morning, that our world was about to descend into a war to end all wars.

As my class gathered that morning, there was a different kind of chatter on the mat. They had questions.  Some were afraid, some found it exciting, like a scene from an action movie or computer game.  Some were confused.  My multicultural class of children were a mix of the very quiet, the excitable and the belligerently opinionated, we had muslims, buddhists, christians, pagans and the non-religious too. So we sat down to talk about it.  First, I pulled out a book I have loved for a long time by Nikolai Popov.  It has no words. Just pictures.  It is simply titled:  Why?



The book explores the origins of conflict.  And it was the very seed of conflict that I wanted to reach with these kids.  The nub, the start, the absolute beginning.  I wanted them to come to a realisation about something very, very important.  So important that our world depends on it.  They were such smart kids.  We began to brainstorm all the things that might begin conflict between two individuals.  We talked about siblings, playground scuffles, when parents fight, gang violence, baddies versus goodies, countries, war.  But it all came back to individuals, in the end. To each child, who will one day be an adult. And this is what it all came down to:

“Conflict happens when I believe
I am more right than someone else”


These kids were 10 and 11 years old.  Similar in age to the boys killed on the beach in Gaza. I make the comparison because there are children caught up in a war over in the Middle East.  Children.  And the grown ups in their world are not providing them a calm and positive place to live.  They are too busy being more right than each other.  Bombing each other.  Destroying each other.  I don’t get in to the debate about who is right and who is wrong.  But I am sickened by the way people on facebook so happily ‘take sides’ in a war that is a long way from their cultural and political worlds.  And even further from their own children’s backyards.  If we take sides, we are believing ourselves to be ‘more right’ than others.  When will a dialogue begin about compromise, understanding, valuing human life?

I was struck by contrast this morning.  Two videos on facebook.  One posted by a Christian I know and respect.  One posted by an Agnostic I know and respect.  One assumes the Israelis ‘more right’ than the Palestinians, it is a video of the Israeli troops celebrating about going into battle.  The other reports on the human cost of the war, the staggering reality of the average age of Gaza’s population.  It is so hard to not make a judgement, based on those two clips alone, about who is ‘more right’.  But instead, I will focus on the thing that matters most.

I think about those children, on both sides of the walls.

Their families think they are more right.  They take their ‘right’ to bear arms against one another, and remove the right of their children to live in a world where we don’t shoot to solve an argument.  Where we make room for difference of opinion.  If my class of kids from every corner of the planet could get along and make music together, why the hell can’t the grown ups of this world?  Get over yourselves, big people.  Move over.  Live and let live.  Grow up.  Do you want peace?  Be peaceful. Stand down.  Show your children how we resolve conflict, lest you teach them how to maintain war.

My class, back then, tore paper into tiny little pieces and made an enormous peace rainbow for our classroom wall.  Every time we felt ‘more right’ than someone else, we’d look at that rainbow and remember:  all the people of many colours, gone from our world because of conflict.  And we’d extend a hand and try,
to understand each other.


Edwin Starr.

What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing
War, yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, yeah

War, good God
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

Oh, war, I despise
Because it means destruction
Of innocent lives

War means tears
To thousands of mothers eyes
When their sons go to fight
And lose their lives

War, it ain’t nothing
But a heartbreaker
War, friend only to the undertaker
It’s an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die?

War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
War, it’s got one friend
That’s the undertaker
Oh, war, has shattered
Many a young mans dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much to short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can’t give life
It can only take it away

War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
War, friend only to the undertaker
Peace, love and understanding
Tell me, is there no place for them today
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But Lord knows there’s got to be a better way

War, huh
Good God y’all
What is it good for
Stand up and shout it: