Growing up my heroes were martial. Flying aces, squadron commanders, generals, fighter pilots. Sergeant York, General Patton, Ulysses S. Grant, Hannibal of Carthage, Sun Tzu. The ones I dreamed about most flew planes, steely-eyed men wedded to sleek flying machines dealing death from the air. I had a profusion of inner effigies, models of me at war, reflected back by the pictures in books about dog-fights and bombing runs.
I was in the woods when we declared war on Iraq. Two days later my rain-sodden Boy Scout troop emerged for Pepsi and sandwiches and we saw the announcement in the papers. I was psyched. It seemed like history was finally happening to me, something important enough to be in the books I read.
Because we had war we had heroes, we had pageantry, we had symbols and songs. We had courage to celebrate, and cowardice to disdain. We had what we needed to feel like a nation. I’m not sure even now I can entirely do without my war-like heroes. We all need other faces, other lives to throw ourselves into.
Adam Hochschild wants to give us an alternative heroism. His book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion celebrates those in Britain who opposed WWI, even in the face of national war-fever. The men and women he depicts are heroes of another kind, like constellations in another hemisphere’s stars.
Sylvia Pankhurst endured imprisonment, hunger strikes and forced feeding protesting for women’s suffrage. When the war came she opposed it and was disowned by her suffragette activist mother.
Charlotte Despard formed one of the first aid societies for workers in the London slums, then defied her own brother—none other than Sir John French, commander of the British Army—to become a noted pacifist.
Emily Hobhouse traveled to South Africa to uncover concentration camps established by the British during the Boer War, then continued her career in international activism by making herself the sole British citizen to advance terms of peace to Germany. While neither side took her back-channel negotiations seriously, she was the only one who even tried to seek peace.
Bert Brocklesby, a conscientious objector, was arrested and shipped to the front with a group of other protesters, where under military law they could be summarily executed. Through a letter thrown out of a train car their supporters at home learned of their plight and petitioned for clemency. Their death sentences were commuted on the day of the execution.
Stephen Hobhouse, Emily’s brother, spent most of the war in prison, writing an underground pacifist newspaper on pieces of toilet paper.
Bertrand Russell, the renowned philosopher, lost his seat at Cambridge and was imprisoned for his objections to conscription.
These are Adam Hochschild’s heroes. They join such figures as Roger Casement and E.D. Morel, whose investigations into conditions in the Belgian Congo Hochschild narrated in King Leopold’s Ghost. For Hochschild pacifists and human rights activists are in a higher firmament than generals.
We need more of these heroes. We need more names like Martin Luther King Jr., names that mean peace through justice. And we need the unnamed: the countless Danish patriots who proved that pacifism’s great counter-example, the Nazi’s, could be stymied, delayed and defeated by nonviolent means. The anonymous Russians who danced arm-in-arm with the enemy, their own truce declared before the Tsar’s. The soldiers in the trenches, during the unofficial Christmas truce, playing soccer with the other side. Would such figures have appealed to my 15-year-old self, my imagination brimming with war machines?
When asked whether boys should be allowed to hunt, Thoreau answered yes, “make them hunters, though sportsmen only at first, if possible, mighty hunters at last, so that they shall not find game large enough for them in this or any vegetable wilderness—hunters as well as fishers of men.” Thoreau’s humans pass through stages, and it wouldn’t do to skip a step from hunting animals to the soul’s hunger.
Do nations pass through stages like Thoreau’s hunters? Is there still more day to dawn on the nation-state? Perhaps our national rush of emotions, the us-ness, the great we together, could one day find itself mirrored in the stories of conscientious objectors, conscription resisters, Quakers, Ghandians, Mennonites, Tolstoyans, Anti-Stalinists, community organizers, civil rights leaders, peacemakers and diplomats.
Perhaps a new kind of hero demands a new kind of nation to recognize it. If that nation is ever to be, Adam Hochschild might be its bard. But I must admit, it is hard to imagine. Nations were born of violence, forged for mutual defense. And they’ve since spent an astonishing amount of creative effort gilding their swords with poetry and myth.
It’s hard to break oneself of myth. Sometimes, if I’m walking alone, I begin to sing to myself in the street. Then, when another person rounds the corner I stop, and the song hangs between us awkwardly, like a broken promise. The shabby street in winter and the uncaring stranger make my singing absurd. My old war-like patriotism feels like that hopeful, embarrassing moment—a feeling ill-fit the world that is.
Part of me is ashamed of my younger self. But I can’t yet wish away his martial hero worship. I’m only now beginning to find something to replace it with. With the help of Hochschild and others, I’m hunting for game large enough. After reading To End All Wars, I’m beginning to think that the quarry is in reach.