Cold Logic in the Cold War

It felt like it was time to write a post about peace, there being so little of that precious commodity available, and it being such a Good Thing generally. Sometimes it feels like Peace is the Giant Panda of Life, vanishingly rare, arguably impractical, but nevertheless illogically desirable to keep around.

What particularly sparked me off though was a reminder that it has been a while since the Cold War fizzled out, and that being so, the paranoia and constant gnawing worry of living under the shadow of the Bomb is now a fading memory. Perhaps, I mused, it is something we should remind ourselves about once in a while and try to explain to the young folk who have not experienced it. This is based on the premise that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, so bear with me and prepare to be reminded or educated.

Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies had its perks, certainly. The music was exciting, there were real astronauts walking on the Moon, and a sense of excitement in the air. There were downsides too, and the testosterone-fuelled face-off across the Iron Curtain was a major issue. This was not because I was incredibly politically aware; I was a child, and my parents were not interested in politics themselves, so I only learned about such things through watching the Man from Uncle on television and seeing posters for the latest James Bond film in the cinema.

It wasn’t something you talked about particularly. It was just there, all the time, at the back of your mind, like what to get for tea, or how long it was until the weekend. It wasn’t even a thing, any more than air or water or the bus being late.

As the Seventies drew to a close and I inched towards the precipice of adulthood it became obvious that things were awry and the world seemed to be edging towards its own brink. This post is about how much it preyed on our teenage minds. This is how it felt.

We had been told that the other side of the Iron Curtain was full of bad guys. People got shot trying to escape, and their deaths peppered the news every now and then as a kind of constant background noise. Just about the time I read 1984 and started to be a little more independent of the official line, the Ayatollah Khomeini lead the overthrow of the Shah of Persia, and took control of Iran. I didn’t understand the background and had barely heard of Iran before then – O-Level geography tended to focus on learning which country exported the most timber and how ox-bow lakes were formed. After that I gave geography up as a bad job and still struggle to work out the difference between the Solway Firth and the Solent.

However, his installation seemed to cause a hysterical fluster in the media and political circles and it looked like the Nuclear Option was suddenly on the table. For real.

We had read about Armageddon and we didn’t fancy it but we were powerless to stop the button being pushed. However, we were not deterred. We were resourceful and modern young people. A few of us had recently passed driving tests and a couple of us even had access to dodgy old cars. So we laid our plans.

This is where the age gap may show. Those of you in my generation will probably nod at what we intended and understand our reasoning, even if you don’t agree with it. My children and younger folks tend to just look bemused or even slightly appalled when I talk about it.

We set up routes and a telephone tree. We agreed pick up points. Cars were to be kept fuelled up for a drive of about 20-25 miles. When the four minute warning was given, we would rendezvous at the agreed locations and drive like hell into the centre of London.

We weren’t going to sign up for a cause.

We weren’t going to protest.

We were aiming to be at the centre of the bomb fallout, because none of us wanted to survive a nuclear war. We hadn’t seen The War Game because the BBC banned it (despite having commissioned it in the first place) until 1985. Nevertheless we had read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and seen pictures.

We intended to die as quickly as possible.

And that, my dears, is what at least one group of teenagers in the late 1970s planned to do in the event of the button being pressed.

War and the means for war mess with your brain. Let’s call it out, shall we?

Namaste.

 

My Syrian tantrum

I have been struggling since I learned of the chemical attack in Damascus. Struggling with the images and the rhetoric and the desire in myself to do something violent and pain-inducing and retributive to whoever made that attack happen. I wanted to see deadly force used against those responsible.

It’s easy being a pacifist when the biggest challenge is dealing with the supermarket running out of my preferred yoghurt, or a colleague disagreeing about how to resolve a problem or a n able-bodied individual sitting in the disabled seat on the train leaving a wobbly, walking-sticked pensioner to stand. Then I can take a deep breath and try to contain my irritation and think loving thoughts until everything falls into perspective. (I’m not saying I always manage to do it, but I try.)

Chemical weapons, any weapons, are not a source of irritation though. They are far more. They are unforgivable.

No, wait, aren’t I supposed to forgive?

It makes my brain hurt to try and understand why people would use them. And I certainly wanted to go storming over to Syria and send them to their room to think about what they had done.I tworked with our children who have become sensible adults.

Yet these are people who have very clearly thought long and hard about what they planned to do, and then did it. In fact they are dangerous, mad-as-a-bag-of-frogs bullies. Bullies need to be removed from the situation and dealt with, patiently and exhaustingly, but crucially removed until they are safe to be around others.

Then I realised I was being sucked in to all the nonsense about crossing lines and standing up for whatever good word came to mind: freedom, justice, peace.

If before I thought it was wrong to kill people, why was I even giving it time of day now? Because the cold, hard truth is that pacifism is not easy. It means dealing in the long term, not the immediate, knee-jerk present.

In my primitive brain I had a fight or flight response to danger: shall I kill someone or run away and hide? I want to be a more sophisticated life form than that. I want to use thoughtfulness, and compassion. Yet that means not rushing in to save the day as if I know best. It means, with awful certainty, waiting. Waiting for more deaths but working to remove the cause of future deaths, rather than stepping in and introducing new reasons to hate and fight and murder other people. It means being unfashionable and unpopular with those suffering. It means taking the hard path.

Today in meeting for worship at my local Quaker meeting we shared our pain and sense of powerlessness and, indeed, our joint struggle to adhere to our core values. This is what our corporate response to the crisis says; it was published last week just ahead of the Commons vote.

Today in meeting for worship we shared that statement and also asked ourselves through our Advices and Queries to think about how we respond as individuals. Advices and Queries is a document used by Quakers and Quaker meetings in Britain as guidance, prompts and challenges to the issues we confront in the wider world. They are not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society. We are all asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies.

The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. Advices & queries.

The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. Advices & queries.

I know I have to take the hard path. I hope to have your company along the way.

Namaste.