Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Two Quakers

A few posts ago I referred to John Runnings, a Quaker and peace campaigner. He began his activism in the 1960s campaigning against the Vietnam War and against nuclear weapons.

In the late 1970s he first became involved in non-violent civil disobedience as part of the campaign against the Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington. During this time he met Gene Sharp, author of The Politics of Nonviolent Action and other related works, who helped give shape to some of John Runnings' growing doubts about the peace movement. In his pamphlet Discovering the Obvious he quotes at length from Sharp, including this passage:

Peace groups have been willing to settle for things far short of abolishing war: witnessing to one's piety and purity - and the stupidity of everybody else; witnessing to being a "holy remnant" or the only sane people around; struggling for the rights of conscientious objectors to war. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these things. The point is not that. But they serve as substitutes for serious efforts to abolish war as such. Peace groups oppose a particular war and try to speed up its end with no confidence whatsoever that, even if successful, the military systems will thereby be weaker. Peace groups oppose the development of a particular weapon or a particular piece of technology - without that necessarily being a vehicle for reversing the whole dependence upon military hardware and military weapons. Or advocates of peace support giving all of the world's weapons to one government - a world government - or support the army of the other side - and call that anti-war activity!! Or peace workers support universal negotiated disarmament when there is no historical evidence that that has ever worked or ever will. Or peace workers settle for some measures of arms control and arms regulation which - although they may help and may prevent a particular outbreak, or destruction, or attack under certain circumstances - can easily be broken and leave the military system more or less as it is.

John Runnings described his own doubts about the strategy of the anti-war movement as follows:

During the years with the peace community I had occasion to pass out anti-war literature on the streets of Seattle. And it was not uncommon to have someone respond to what I was doing this wise, "It is all right for you to take advantage of the freedom of speech that we enjoy in this country to disparage the United States for their part in the arms race, but the Russians are going all out to match and exceed our arms build up. Who is protesting in Russia? Why aren't you there?

And I had a tendency to read into this protest an implicit expectation that if I were to do such a protest in Russia that I would be sent to Siberia for a long, long time and that my loyalty to the U.S. was questionable, and that I had a partiality for the communist philosophy.

The easy answer was that it was more convenient to protest in Bremerton than in Moscow and that we were responsible for our government and the responsibility for protesting arms in Russia was with the Russians. 

But I was not at all satisfied with this answer . I felt that the conservatives had a point here that we were refusing to look at, that we were making a political contest between Americans and Americans on how to reduce the military threat between Americans and Russians.

Runnings' conclusion was that anti-war activists should seek to implement an alternative to war by challenging military borders through non-violent direct action. He viewed war as the inevitable result of there being no global civil law, only treaties between military states. 

He was as good as his word, and in 1985 went on to leaflet on the streets of Moscow before being deported, (in a 100 seat Aeroflot jet with no other passengers,) then to physically attack the Berlin Wall several times, and carried out repeated "political invasions" of East Germany, entering the DDR without permission, and with as much publicity as he could organise. On an early attempt he was injured by East German border guards and jailed for three months. During later events he found that East German forces treated him with increasing care and expeditiousness as they sought to rid themselves of him with the minimum of fuss.

I first came across John Runnings' writing when looking for online material on another Quaker, author Jan de Hartog.

In Discovering the Obvious, Runnings writes at one point about de Hartog's novel The Captain. The title character is Captain Harinxma, skipper of a Dutch ocean-going tug in the Murmansk convoys during the Second World War. From the brief claustrophobic description of London during the Blitz to the relentless brutality of the Nazi attacks on the convoys, the book is a powerful account of overwhelming fear. 

John Runnings obviously admired the novel greatly, as did I when I read it, but when it comes to de Hartog's pacifist conclusion, Runnings the peace campaigner parts company with him. He writes:

[De Hartog] knows certainly that civilization is an ongoing commercial and political contest for the goodies of civilization, and it's also lawsuits, black eyes, spitballs and cheating. Nor is it an issue of peace and war. If we define war as contest, all life is war. We are at battle from the time the doctor slaps us on the rump to the time we wrestle with the diseases of old age. Peace, the absence of strife, is not an achievable goal. There can never be an end to war defined as strife, until there is an end to breathing. Life, in a sense, is an anti-peace campaign to escape death and boredom. At issue is the kind of war. We have a form of non-military war that is so much a part of us that we do not recognize it as such, and this, of course, is civil law. In contrast to military war it is called peace.

Runnings finds Captain Harinxma's solution to the unmitigated brutality of war, his decision to disengage, unsatisfactory. He continues:

In the natural world there is no such thing as fairness, justice, mercy or murder, or lunacy for that matter. And while some other species may share with us the emotions we call love and hate that may prompt them to violence or accommodation, they are subject only to the rewards and penalties of natural law. So if you disengage when you are being pursued by a bear in the natural world you accommodate to the bear's right to eat you for lunch. The military contest is a contest in natural law and the victorious state is going to eat lunch. And the defeated state, having been forced to disengage from the contest, is going to be the lunch.

We can have an end to military war and natural law as soon as we bring the rules of civilization to the militarily imposed divisions that define international states. War, as I have insisted before, is a contest in the terror of slaughter and destruction to determine, when all other means of conflict resolution have failed, which of the political entities so engaged will write the terms of the peace. If it could be determined at the beginning of the fight who would win, those that were sure to loose could surrender at the beginning of the contest and save the cost of the war and avoid the slaughter and destruction entailed. There is no doubt an untold number of wars that have been avoided when a nation faced with superior strength surrendered before the war started. Any war can be stopped as soon as one side is prepared to take the penalties of disengagement. The penalty is that by so doing one says loudly that one can be pushed around. And there are those among us who would rather die than be pushed around by military threat.

(...) if all of the members of the Allied Forces became offended by the slaughter and destruction and disengaged from the war, it would be the German High Command who would levy the penalties. The Allies suffered six years of the carnage because they did not want to take the penalties of disengagement and slaughter and destruction as de Hartog's story suggests. For a while it might be said it was a choice between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as opposed to Oranienburg, Buchenwald, and Dachau, more importantly it was a contest between invading dictators and defending democracies in the context of natural law. We do not need to see peace in terms of de Hartog's poetry to find disengagement to become lunch for the Nazis an intolerable option.

Many years after Harinxma's decision, "not to shoot back" whatever the consequences, he is writing to his son who is now contemplating joining the Air Force. And because Harinxma's author is culturally programmed to see the slaughter and destruction of war as the problem, rather than the absence of civil alternatives to natural law, he steers his son into the labyrinth of moral considerations, detached as they are in war from the supporting institutions of civil law for moral behavior as follows:

"So I cannot sit mutely by while you try on your first Air Force uniform in front of the mirror blissfully unconscious of the fact that to volunteer for the military training is to sign a pact with violence, and hand the ultimate moral decision - to kill or not to kill - over to a faceless committee of men who, by their very training and indoctrination, consider genocide a legitimate means of settling human disputes."

With apologies to Jan de Hartog, I think this is inaccurate and unfair. Hitler was using illegitimate means of conflict resolution. And the "faceless committee" is in charge of the illegitimate response that is the only option, since there is no legislature at the international level by which a legal, or a legitimate, response might have been pursued.

We are not charged with murder if we can show reasonable proof that we had to kill to avoid being killed. The protection of civil law not being available we are allowed to protect ourselves as best we may. The state of war is evidence that protection of civil law is unavailable. And had the Allies disengaged because of their repugnance to the horrors of war it would have been Hitler's concepts of peace and justice that would have prevailed rather than those of Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman and other Allied leaders.

Here the issue that de Hartog raises is not how to change natural law into civil law, but rather on how the individual may avoid getting into a situation where doing violence to another person is required by the situation. It is clearly the fault of our cultural heritage that this marvelous intellect writes a superb portrayal of war, and the horrors of war, to conclude with so paltry a solution. For there are vast quantities of literature, ancient and modern, authored by persons of undeniable intellect and integrity in support of this pathetically inadequate approach to the abolishment of military threat and military strife between peoples.

It would have been interesting had there been a conversation between these two. I suspect that Jan de Hartog would have had some sympathy with John Runnings' point of view, for his books do not shy away from the primitive and visceral qualities of life that Runnings points to. Despite his pacifism, he wrote about war with power and imagination. He matched spirituality with feverish sensuality and sexuality, and described religious faith as much in terms of psychology as of divinity.

I wrote a few words in praise of de Hartog in my contribution to Normblog's Writer's Choice series. More Jan de Hartog posts here.

The top illustration on the theme of Roman gladiators is from the Times Higher Education Supplement, April 1, 1994. The lower image is a dustjacket for The Captain, illustrated by John O'Hara Cosgrave II.

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