As the days get noticeably longer and the year begins to gain momentum, I have been observing what builds up my energy and what makes it slump. It’s a good way to gain an indication of which direction to follow. What I notice again and again is that when interactions fall into binary dynamics of right and wrong, good and bad, or discussions strive for a dominant ‘winner’, my psyche becomes more combative or defensive and is quickly drained. There is rarely a satisfactory outcome. But when there is an openess for exploration, conversation, ‘compassionate enquiry or curiosity’ as the physician Gabor Maté would call it, my whole body relaxes. I come away feeling expanded, richer, slightly changed, more connected. More hopeful.
Where am I going with this?
Monday 13th February marks the 78th anniversary of the British and American bombing of Dresden. Every year, a human chain of people holding hands in an open gesture of unity wends its way through the city. This year, on Tuesday 14th, a lunchtime gathering will also take place in London with leading figures from the Anglo-German community to remember the second day of the 1945 bombing raid and celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Dresden Trust. Founded shortly after the reunification of Germany by Dr Alan Russel in response to a ‘Call from Dresden’ to help rebuild the city, the charity is dedicated to healing the wounds of war and furthering harmonious relations between the people of Britain and Dresden.
Whether you see the bombing of Dresden as a British/US war crime, a justified military strategy or a deserved, morale-destroying mission specifically designed to create as much damage and carnage as possible, the outcome is the same: 25,000 civilians died unimaginably horrible deaths. Such extreme acts of destruction are only possible when all that people can see in their fellow human beings is difference, separation, ‘other,’ lesser, enemy… And where that occurs, peace becomes a far-off pipe dream.
In contrast, behind the reconciliatory, healing and bridge-building efforts of organisations such as the Dresden Trust, is a striving for the opposite: collaboration, communication, comprehension, compassion… and a whole load of other words starting with ‘co’ or ‘com’ that signify a certain oneness in our shared humanity.
Two of the areas I have been most active in – rehabilitation and reconciliation – both have in common that they are repairing or making whole something that got broken. They come about post-event, after the damage has run its course, hence the ‘re-‘ prefix. So what if our collective focus shifted from the costly (on all levels) clean-up jobs those ‘re-‘ words embody, to preventative measures of ‘habilitating’ and ‘conciliation’? What if, instead of constantly having to make good again things that we have damaged – whether health, a lack of education, inequalities or injustices – we put all that time, energy and funding into seeking out and nurturing the common foundations and shared human needs we all have and that we can see so clearly in emergencies such as the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, where all the differentiating labels (national, political, ideological, gender etc.) we layer over our essential selves get stripped away?
To do this we would need a fundamental shift from head to heart; in our education, politics, laws, economics, environmental policies, attitudes to foreigners. Thankfully, in many areas, that shift is already happening.
During President Zelenskyy’s recent tour of Europe, I was gladdened to hear the calm voice of Christopher Chivvis, former Sr. US Intelligence Officer in Europe, in an interview with Evan Davis on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. He quietly called for a more robust diplomatic track in relation to the Russia / Ukraine war rather than an escalation of increasingly powerful military methods of destruction with the ensuing losses of life. And then he outlined how this could look. I found him more psychologically astute and emotionally literate than many of the louder voices we hear, but see what you think You can listen to the interview here starting 46:31 mins in.
I imagine one of the foundation stones of diplomacy is a willingness to make a concerted effort to hear all sides of the story. An attempt to do just this came in the form of the brilliant 3-part BBC2 documentary series, ‘Putin vs the West’. Produced by Norma Percy, it presents the run-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine through the spoken words of an impressive range of key players as well as incredible footage of Putin and co at work. It was compelling watching that I can only recommend. But… for all the different angles it presented, it remained largely the point of view of the west. As Andrew Seale said in his article: “The problem with this type of documentary… is that there is no one credible to interrogate the west’s narrative.” And it was very clear, the west didn’t always get it right.
So we need to go even further. To include an even more diverse range of voices. To hear our critics too.
If Dresden can teach us anything, it is that it is too dangerous not to. War brutalises. War traumatises. For generations to come. Maybe as former US president, Barack Obama, said in defence of his retrospectively ‘best’ but much criticised decision not to take military action against Syria after it had crossed his ‘red line’ of using chemical weapons: “The ease with which military actions gain momentum, the greater difficulty in pulling back and insuring that diplomacy is given a chance.”
Talks between Russia and Ukraine would save lives argues Christopher Chivvis – The Economist
Putin vs the West review – like a gripping terrifying soap opera – The Guardian
The West is wrong to assume it has global support in the war against Putin – Open Democracy