Rise like lions

IssueOctober 2010
Comment by Jeff Cloves

You think sometimes you’re beyond being shocked any more by anything and then you are. At 8.30pm yesterday (9 September) I listened to the news on BBC Five Live. It’s a sports station so the lead stories concerned sport and corruption I think – I didn’t pay much attention – and then came this bombshell: the Commons had voted overwhelmingly in favour of keeping British troops in Afghanistan. Only 14 MPs voted for their removal. The newsreader stated this was the first time they’d had a chance to vote on the issue and then – almost as an afterthought – noted that half the house hadn’t bothered to attend the debate.

My immediate reaction was not only one of shock but also of outrage that it was not the lead story. Match-fixing, footballers playing away from home, racehorse owners and administrators squaring-up at the races, were all regarded as more important than renewed commitment to an unwinnable war in which the only dead who count are ours.

Actually, I remember now that the lead story was that the US government had warned US travellers in Muslim countries to beware violence should Christian burnings of the Qur’an take place on the anniversary of 9/11. And all this going on while the anniversaries of the Battle of Britain and the commencement of the blitz are reminding us just what it was like to be on the receiving end of a (would-be) invader.

I’ve been a reader – and contributor – to PN for over 40 years and there have been times, during those years, when I’ve been unable to read it. This paper should be re-titled War News I used to think, and the truth of it was that I didn’t dare read it. The content made me feel so down and pessimistic that I was in fear of giving up.

On reflection, I think there were times when PN editors got the balance of the paper wrong and there’s no shame in that. However, an unending catalogue of bad news can be counter-productive in a campaigning newspaper and features, reviews, personal comment, Donald Rooum’s cartoons, the occasional poem, a vibrant letters page and so on, are a necessary leavening.

All this introspection, though, has been provoked by that news item.

It brought into focus the magnitude of the task which faces the peace movement. Shelley, memorably in his lament for the dead of the Peterloo massacre, reminds us that “ye are many, they are few” but we peaceniks are “so few” – to misappropriate Churchill’s words about Battle of Britain fighter pilots – that the odds seem overwhelming.

However, in my teens I found it hard to believe we wouldn’t all be vaporised by the H-bomb before I reached 21 and miraculously I’m still alive.

Oddly, I’m usually encouraged by PN’s obits. The lives of indefatigable men and women who have striven all their years for peace, always summon up my blood. These otherwise unexceptionable people are not rewarded by knighthoods and seats in the Lords and their cause is never popular or fashionable. It was Harry Patch’s great age – and the fact that he was the last link with The Great War – that caught the attention of the media at large and not his forthright conclusion that “war is organised murder”.

This morning (10 September) I finally found a brief column about the Afghanistan debate on page 15 (!) of the Guardian. It quoted one or two of the MPs who bothered to turn up and included this monstrous gem from James Arbuthnot (Con) who is chair of the Commons defence committee. He claimed it was a mistake to describe the conflict as a “war” and saw it as part of a “wider global mission in the Middle East region as a whole”. Caroline Lucas (Green) pointed out that the war was costing British taxpayers “over £7m a day”. She was of course speaking for the few and Mr Arbuthnot for the many.

“Rise like lions from your slumbers
In unvanquishable numbers”
urged Percy Bysshe Shelley.
If only we could. If only we would.

Topics: Afghanistan
See more of: Jeff Cloves