This article by David Hirons was first published by Coventry Association for International Friendship as CAIF in the Time of Coronavirus Bulletin 77 in April 2020.
I wrote this for the Mosul Conference which was due to take place this month in Coventry and, as I feel it has much relevance today at this important and significant time, I would like to share it here and now
Conflict and destruction is happening in every part of our world today. Natural destruction we can, perhaps, understand – whether we call it an “Act of God” or attribute it to the forces that shape our planet as they demonstrate their power and inevitability.
On the other hand, conflict is a human – should we say “man-made” – phenomenon. It doesn’t have to happen, but it does. In relation to the subject-matter of today’s conference, it is relevant to ask how and why it does and how we might play our part in not just mitigating it but preventing it in its entirety.
CAIF was started in 1962 by a group of people concerned about the way in which the world was developing. I doubt whether I have to remind any of you but this was a time in which the world was still, as it were, politically bi-polar, dominated by the ideological and territorial struggles between East and West, between Capitalism and Communism. And this oppositional polarization was epitomized in the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union over the siting of nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, no more than 90 miles away from the North American mainland in Florida.
In October 1962 the world was on the brink of its first nuclear war, a possibility of which many people were mortally afraid. In the event, actual war between these two so-called “superpowers” was avoided but the ideological battle morphed into other conflagrations as, for example; in the form of the Vietnam War, which bled out into the wider South- East Asian region, into Cambodia and Laos; in the form of civil unrest as independence struggles fomented in Africa and South America; and in the form of the first real expression of military muscle exercised by the State of Israel since its founding in May 1948.
Over the next 50 years, from 1970 to 2020, military confrontations have continued in many different centres – often described without conscious irony as “theatres of war” – in many different countries and on diverse continents, too numerous to catalogue here today.
As I have said, CAIF was started in response to the dire situation in which yet another World War might begin, only this time with even more vicious consequences – for civilians and for the planet, our ecological environment, the Biosphere. We know that today the technology of warfare has so far advanced strategy and response that it is possible for someone to sit in a silo somewhere out in the desert of Nevada and terminate the life of an adversary in the vicinity of Baghdad. Or degrade a landscape and render it inhabitable.
What a world, and what have we become as a self-hating, self-destroying species !
At the forefront of the aims of CAIF, inherited from our predecessors in the CCIU, is the idea of – the belief in – the power of friendship. Of the need for friendship, between individuals and between people – groups, localities, cities, countries – in order to overcome suspicion and fear of the “other” – a term which epitomizes supremacy and which has often been used to characterize the subordination of one individual, one ethnic group, to another. And, it is through friendship, through the spread of friendship and the nurturing of friendship between nations and their people that we would hope to see an end to the urge to dominate and a reduction in the instances of conflict, if not their eradication. * Friendship between strangers who become, firstly, new friends then hopefully, later, old friends, may be greater than that within a family – as they say, “you can choose your friends but not your family”.
Families co-exist but sometimes they fall apart. Friendships have to be created – through shared interests, ambitions, needs and common goals – and sustained and underpinned by mutual goodwill in order to have longevity.
But while friendship may be born of affinities, it also lives with mysteries – how do we ever really know someone else? We may develop closeness and affection but this may remain intermingled with the enigmas of otherness. There may be the commonalities of shared experience but also mystery.
And if, as Aristotle said, friendship is also a “mirror to the self”, what happens when the mirror reflects a radically different experience and concept of the self – as a human mind and physical appearance – with all that this entails in terms of its lifelong consequences? Doesn’t our appearance and the history of each of us as an individual and of our identity within our group affect our responses ?
To answer those questions we need to put aside our overriding sense of self, sublimate any sense of difference and accept each other – as a friend.
If conflict is an attempt to express or to exert strength – based on ancient, historically-embedded ideas of identity and power – friendship has to be the opposite – the antithesis of this. Rather, friendship has to be the voluntary surrender, the need to give up the contestation of space and ideas in favour of accepting differences. And curiosity and acceptance of difference is the starting point of friendship followed by respect, then by trust. Project this from the individual to the national and international perspective and what should we get ? One would hope a more peaceful and safer world for the generations to come in which to grow up.
These ideas about friendship have a direct bearing on the causes of war and destruction. Suspicion, territorial envy, religious opposition, economic competition for markets, resources and raw materials, the quest for ethnic domination and political control – these are just some of the factors which have caused wars to happen, particularly in our own era.
At this conference we will hear from the representatives of some of the major European cities which were subject to conflict and destroyed during WWII, a war which was waged against humanity itself by an inhuman ideology.
Each has been asked to reflect upon their own experience of war and the effects that such a conflict had on their own surroundings. To shed light on the way in which the state in which they lived and the civic society of which they were members combined to revive their cities in the aftermath of the destruction.
These are the representatives of Coventry, Volgograd (Stalingrad), Saint Petersburg (Leningrad), Dresden and Kiel.
I wrote this text at a time when we were concerned about the plight of the people of Mosul in Iraq who have been subject to the continuous destruction of both their heritage in the form of the physical environment of their city but also and, as importantly, of the civic society which bound them together as a people.
I began this text by focusing on the age-old propensity of the human species for waging war, for causing destruction through conflict, and questioned the reason why we constantly struggle to come to terms with our urge towards belligerence and why we cannot put it aside in favour of a more conducive and considerate attitude and systemic approach to co-habiting on our planet. During the past few weeks and months we have learnt – perhaps re-discovered would be a better description – that the Biosphere in which we live is itself just as capable of waging its own war on us and we are struggling to comprehend and formulate a response to this natural form of destruction.
Some may try to attribute this, with deep suspicion, to it being the outcome of yet another variant on the waging of war by nation against nation, people against people – war “by other means” – while others may have another interpretation of it as an “Act of God”. But, whatever the position that is taken, this has been a stunning reminder of forces which exist virtually outside of our own control, short of radically altering the ways in which we live our lives.
If the reaction to dealing with the Pandemic and its aftermath results in greater competition and new forms of conflict, then the future will be very bleak and even more destructive. Whatever, the origins of the Coronavirus, Covid-19, there could have been fewer times in human history when we needed friendship, solidarity and co-operation between us more than at this moment.
Without it, we may well indeed be doomed.