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By Helen Watson White in All Sorts
exploring what is normal, what is reasonable about war?PEACE HERO
In the fortnight leading up to 6 August, World Peace Sunday, Opera Otago staged the premiere of War Hero, an opera composed by John Drummond and directed by the author. With words based on a play by Michael Galvin, War Hero presents in a highly dramatic form the First World War story of conscientious objector Archibald Baxter, who was taken from his Brighton farm ultimately to the fields of France, where he was punished to the hilt for his anti-war stand.
Both play and opera owe a great deal to Baxter's own 1939 book We Will not Cease: the autobiography of a conscientious objector, which in our 1980 edition (its second reprint) is prefaced by lines from Blake's poem that we know as the hymn 'Jerusalem':
'I will not cease from mental fight Nor shall the sword sleep in my hand 'Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land'
The 'we' of Baxter's title is important in his statement, for he was not at first alone in undergoing a succession of imprisonments and trials (I don't mean legal trials -- he was never tried). Some of these dreadful things were suffered in the company of his own brother and of other men who refused to serve -- the latter becoming like brothers to him as time and the war and the punishments wore on.
Indeed, he undertook his rebellion because of his views on the 'brotherhood of all men' as well as the 'wrongness of war and violence', he tells a 'Jamaica negro' in a mental hospital where he has been treated sympathetically for the first time. The Jamaican's brotherly response is only one of many stories of Baxter's cause striking a chord with working men and the soldiers themselves. The opera contained some striking instances of support for the protestors, while army officers and government officials treated those they named traitors with a cruelty as prolonged as it was extreme.
Despite his self-declared agnostic frame of reference, Baxter exhibits a mental toughness that reminds you of stories of Christian martyrs. If there was anything you could call his religion, it would be socialism, which has been allied with Christian belief for many well-known figures in history, such as New Zealand's Walter Nash. Several leaders of the original New Zealand Labour Party were pacifists in the First World War but changed their views in the Second. The 1939 date of Baxter's publication suggests, on the other hand, that he considered those approaching what could become a second world war should be made aware of how wrong was the first. Baxter's message was uncompromising. When it comes to right and wrong, you can't pick and choose among wars, he seemed to say. When asked if he is 'against this war' he replies 'I'm against this war. I am against all wars.'
What the pacifists are taking a stand against is the normality of war, as the opera suggested by prefacing the action with a quotation from Arthur Koestler: 'The most persistent sound which reverberates though history is the beating of war drums.' Drummond acknowledges that in his Quaker family he was raised, instead, with the notion that peace and peace-making is normal, his own father being a conscientious objector in World War 2. In an ODT interview he said 'For the Society of Friends, peace is always a better alternative to war -- that we should make peace not war'. The art, in Drummond's case, involves creating a whole new work to tell Baxter's story: this is one way to 'make peace'.
A debate about the rightness of celebrating someone who didn't fight has continued in letters and opinion pieces in the ODT. But in terms of the words from 'Jerusalem' he / they did fight, just not with guns. They partipated in war for months on end, Baxter suffering shell-shock every bit as severe as the soldiers around him in the mental hospital.
What is normal, what is reasonable, about war? Baxter answers the question by telling another man's tale: 'One man I talked with seemed to be perfectly normal and well. He told me he had gone to the Colonel and asked for leave to go over to England to place certain verses of Scripture before Lloyd George. He was convinced that if he could only point these verses out... L.G. would then know how to stop the war, and would, of course, immediately bring it to an end. He had been put under observation and had still clung to his idea, with the result that a label had been tied round his neck with mental on it and he had been dumped here...
Thousands of people have thoughts like his, but unlike him, they don't think them strongly enough to put them into action, especially not in the army, so they don't land up in mental hospitals.'
Which is the greater madness, war or someone's earnest efforts to stop it? Plenty to think about here.
-- Helen Watson White