ANZAC day is not long gone. I often find it a frustrating day, because despite focusing on war it often fails to reflect on what war really is. It can also have a very individualised approach to remembering, where any reflection on war as a whole is heard as dishonouring the suffering and sacrifice of the soldiers who participated. As if the courage and suffering of the ANZACS would be invalidated by criticising the early 20th century foreign policy of New Zealand and Australia.
Yet to my mind, any ‘remembering’ or ‘honouring’ which is premised on not thinking about what actually happened, is an insult. War is always a deeply political affair, and I feel certain that those individual soldiers would all have had opinions about what was happening, how it was happening, and how things could have been different. And so, it is a day on which much could be said. Indeed, I have deleted reams of previous drafts, on the basis that I needed to write a blog-post, not a mini-series, about ANZAC day.
So I thought I’d focus on two comments made by political leaders on ANZAC day this year. They are quite different comments, and I have different feelings about each of them. But, in their own way, they both reflect an ignorance about peace.
You will probably not be surprised that I can’t look past the comments made by Australian Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton that ‘the only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war’. This very idea of this is, at best, the height of naivety. At worst, it is a thinly disguised act of aggression.
The notion that military deterrence is the only way to scare others off from attacking you is a dangerous kind of thinking. Moral arguments aside, it ignores the idea that if you start to act aggressively in the world then you are more likely to egg war on, or to make a target of yourself. Indeed, it is a kind of logic that we wouldn’t apply to other interpersonal situations. For example, would you advise your child that ‘if you want to make friends, be prepared to bully?’ Of course you wouldn’t! So why would you advise your nation to do that when it comes to building relationships with other nations?
The other thing this kind of comment disregards is the nature of modern-day conflict. It just isn’t the case that the biggest military will win. And much smaller groups take on enormous militaries all the time, showing that they don’t feel deterred. North Vietnam didn’t feel deterred by the presence of the biggest military in the world in South Vietnam. The Taliban didn’t feel deterred by the US presence either. It is notable that the biggest military in the world, and by many measures the biggest military in history, routinely looses to armies of militarily weak, but motivated opponents.
Unfortunately, the world as a whole hasn’t paid much attention to how peace can be prepared for, strengthened and improved. Proactive Peace offers a way of engaging in this kind of work, or (more likely) it offers a way for us to see the peace work that we are already engaged in, and to value it.
The second ANZAC day comment I want to reflect on, was made by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In her ANZAC day speech, she highlighted the war in Ukraine as “…a most grim reminder of the fragile nature of peace…”
Now I object to this. Peace is not fragile. Yet I often hear it described so. And to me, this indicates that we do not do a very good job of thinking about the nature of peace.
Of course, peace is not something that we ever ‘perfect’, and there is more violence in this world and more threats to peace than just the presence of war. But when we are thinking of peace and war at the scale that the Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds us of, then peace is certainly not fragile.
And even when war is occurring, most people do not participate. This is one of the reasons that war stands out so much when it does occur. If it was the norm, then it would probably not be such a newsworthy event. So to say that peace is fragile falsely suggests that war is the stronger, more prevalent situation.
Not only is peace quite stable though, but when war does occur, it never comes out of no-where. It is predicated by conflict risk-factors, which work over a long period of time to make war more likely. And certainly, one state invading another is not a very common form of war.
So the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have been sudden as far as our TV screens were concerned, but in reality, it was preceded by 8 years of fighting in the eastern regions of Ukraine, between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine itself. Recall MH17 being shot down? Remember it was shot down using Russian weapons by separatists as it flew over the conflict zone in Ukraine. And then there’s the Russian annexation of Crimea, which exacted no meaningful consequences for Russia. Indeed, our neglect of global peace architecture is a major issue highlighted by this conflict.
I think, and would suggest that what Jacinda Ardern was getting at, is that the presence of war reminds us of just how much we value, and perhaps have taken for granted, peace. It reminds us that peace is precious. But it is not fragile. Peace is remarkably resilient (especially when we consider just how little attention we give it). It is important to remember that, because comments which describe peace as fragile unintentionally excuse war. They suggest that ‘of course there is war…peace is just so fragile after all…what could we expect?’
If we recognised this, perhaps we would begin to see war as more outrageous. Perhaps we would have commissions of inquiry to get to the bottom of how such an atrocity was able to occur. To understand where our actions, or inactions, contributed to its occurrence. To understand how we could have done things differently.
War is not unexpected and peace is not fragile. We can choose to do nothing to prevent war, or to enhance peace. But our neglect of peace does not make it fragile. In fact, it is remarkable just how strong peace is. Despite the lack of attention we give it, peace regularly remains the norm.
Peace is worthy of our attention. Certainly, it is worthy of our preparation and work. It deserves better than the attitudes we give it.