War and peace

Nicola Sullivan, 28.03.2017
Exploring the peace movement in a space reserved for war
I recently visited People Power: Fighting for Peace – a major show exploring the anti-war movement at the Imperial War Museum. Initially I was unsure whether a museum crammed with fighter planes, tanks and guns would be the best place to explore pacifism.

I soon discovered, however, that an exhibition about peace in a space dedicated war to raises a unique set of questions and juxtapositions. Much like a military crusade, the campaign for peace is bitterly fought.  While the stakes might not be as high as they are on the battlefield, in many cases the fight for peace involves a huge amount of self-sacrifice, creativity and bravery.  

The exhibition, which covers 100 years of conflict, explores how conscientious objectors during the first world war were treated much less cordially than pacifists in other conflicts. Personal items and letters on display reveal the harrowing experiences of conscientious objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and resentment from wider society.

By the mid 1930s it was much more socially acceptable to be a pacifist, and 1934 saw the creation of the Peace Pledge Union – now the oldest secular pacifist organisation in Britain. There were 60,000 conscientious objectors during the second world war, but Nazi Germany and rise of Hitler made it be very difficult to be a pacifist.

Many pacifists, including Winnie-the-Pooh author AA Milne changed their stance. Others made valuable contributions to the war effort by working as for the ambulance service or even carrying out bomb disposal work.

Pacifism was further redefined during the Cold War, when traditional approaches to warfare were turned on their head by the proliferation of nuclear weapons. An archive interview with Michael Harbottle, a former British Army Brigadier and peace campaigner, shows just how devisive nuclear warfare can be.

“I think when one recognises that the next world war, as I always put it, will be fought by politicians with weapons designed by scientists, which are targeted and fired by computers against populations, where’s the military in that?” said Harbottle. 

“The military are part of the population. They’re going to die along with everybody else. There is no military tactical use for nuclear weapons.”

The exhibition explored the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and its powerful use of symbolism, which still characterises the peace movement today.  

Much of the exhibition space was dedicated to the creativity that went into designing campaign materials and banners used to protest against a number of high profile conflicts in the Middle East, including the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and the Iraq war (2003-2011).

There were items from Brian Haw’s protest camp (which he lived in for almost ten years outside the Houses of Parliament); a 30ft banner used to front protest (attended by almost two million people) against the Iraq war; and images of recent protests against the policies of American president Donald Trump.

It turns out that there is no more powerful place to explore the fight for peace than in a museum reserved for the history of war. This approach allows for unique reflection on how conflicts are judged by history, as well as how the tactics they employ and the grounds on which they are fought redefine the values of ordinary civilians.