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Against a Sea of Troubles

Today I am paying my first visit to Hawkhill Inclosure, near Hatchet Pond on the eastern side of the New Forest. Stepping through the gate, I see immediately that the paths here are narrow, unmaintained. Ferns in the full flush of summer stretch out their leaves before me. Pinecones are scattered amongst the tree roots that protrude through the compacted earthen surface beneath my feet. I let the silence seep into me, reaffirming the integration of what is within with what is without, the longevity of the Forest with the transience of my body.

Then, quite suddenly, I find myself walking upon concrete; a long-neglected road, perhaps five meters wide, stretches ahead of me, crumbling where clumps of ragwort have forced their way up through long-worn fissures. Moss invading a meter or more from each side. There are many of these old roads criss-crossing the Forest, for the most part dating back to the Second World War, this area having been important to the defence effort. I am guessing that this one was a service road for Beaulieu Airfield, just to the south of me, now also long gone. Bomb storage and preparation areas were hidden in the woods about the airfields. Here, munitions would be stored, then fitted with fuses and tail sections before being wheeled to the airfield for loading onto aircraft and unleashing devastation from the skies over Germany. The terror of war and the horror that always accompanies it is gone from here now. Only the Forest remains, swaying in the wind dropping only leaves come the autumn. When the service-people left, the roads were abandoned for the Forest to reclaims at her own preferred pace.Echoing a bygone age, they now stand as testimony to the impermanence of everything we experience.

But today, as I look at the old road stretching out behind me into the past, it gives me cause to think about what else has crumbled in neglect while successive post war generations have hurled themselves headlong into the pursuit of values and preoccupations that our war-winning forefathers would find unrecognisable. For we in theWest have lived this century in a fool’s paradise of superficial peace and safety. Replete with our full bellies and foreign holidays, we have wined and dined and danced our way through twenty years or more of false security, ignoring the reality that darker, malign forces have used this interlude to plan a future quite different from that which we had envisaged.

For more than thirty years,Western Europe has sought to embrace a former enemy, preferring to believe that people and nations can change, convincing itself that bellicose vocations are the thing of the past. It could have been different. I am old enough to remember Margaret Thatcher’s stark warning to Chancellor Kohl of Germany as the policy of reliance on Russian energy evolved. “But Helmut,” she reported herself as saying, “These people are not like us. You cannot trust them.”

The warning was ignored by WestEuropean nations and by many in this country as well. We waxed fat in serenity, convinced that all we were left to contend with were the negative consequences of ever expanding ‘wealth’ in the form of over-exploitation of planetary resources. “It will be alright,” they said. And it was alright – until it wasn’t.

Having ignored the numerous klaxons of warning that populate the years since the fall of the Berlin wall, we now find ourselves in a summer of soaring fuel and energy prices and a threat to the supply security of both. We are not so confident of our continuing ability to fill those bellies as we were.  Quite suddenly, substantial numbers amongst us queue at the food banks. Even global warming’s temperatures soar and its wildfires rage, we contemplate a winter of unaffordable fuel prices and the unthinkable prospect of food shortages. The threat of economic meltdown, arguably as consequential as polar meltdown, is now inescapable.

For one man, possibly terminally ill, possibly mentally deranged, supported by a sycophantic entourage that trail in his narcissistic wake, has decided that this is the moment to capitalise on our insouciant, self-imposed dependency on his energy resources. Rewriting history to justify his aggression, he invades the neighbouring state he considers to be his by entitlement. And, should he be successful in his quest, he will gain control of a near effective monopoly of the world’s grains and food oils in addition to his influence over energy. 

Megalomania blinds his eyes to the collateral damage of human suffering he considers irrelevant: the rivers of refugees, the murdered babies, the tens of thousands of dead Russian men - sons of distraught, grief-stricken mothers, every one of them –that he has turned into the dismembered entrails of so much cannon fodder. So few are the remaining available free men in Russia to eradicate the scourge of so-called Nazis, that now, it is said, he scours his own prisons to fill the crater holes that western weapons have blown in the Russian army’s ranks.

So far, the West, and NATO in particular, have been able to maintain their balance on the narrowest of tightropes, supporting the defenders with sophisticated armaments whilst stopping short of supplying combatants in an attempt to support defence capability without provoking potential nuclear confrontation.

But even now the West’s strategists contemplate how sustainable a policy this can be. They reluctantly acknowledge that Putin may well in due course reach a point of final choice. Unable to win this conflict with a worn out army, does he face the ignominy of shame-faced withdrawal or does he escalate to the open use of weapons of mass destruction? Facing such an impossible choice, we cannot know in advance if this maniac’s finger will drop onto the thermonuclear button. And if it does, even if in his delusion he believes that theatre nuclear warfare can be conducted without escalation to intercontinental ballistic missiles, the world changes forever.

For all the potentially bellicose nations that possess nuclear weapons (be that China towards Taiwan, Iran - arguably - against Israel, North Korea over South Korea or others that we do not yet know about) will consider it an invitation to unleash Armageddon in pursuit of their obsessions. It is then that we will discover the meaning of the old Cold War policy of MAD - mutually assured destruction. The world will lie in tatters, shivering under the blanket of a nuclear winter that will make our preoccupation with global warming look ludicrous.

 Let me declare openly that I am, by natural inclination, a pacifist. I avoid confrontation at every turn. I practice meditation daily. Last year, in 2021, I came close to making a formal commitment to Buddhism – a direction in which I have been travelling for many years, perhaps all of this lifetime. But a detailed exploration of the Eight-foldNoble Path (The Fourth Noble Truth), and discussions with a close Buddhist friend brought me inexorably to the horns of a dilemma, sharp as razor wire.Buddhism clearly requires that I harm or kill nothing intentionally. For me, that is relatively easy in some matters, such as the avoidance of killing animals through practicing vegetarian eating. What is much harder is to accept that all war, even defensive war is wrong. I desperately want the world to beat peace. I very much want to be free to follow my own journey. I want all of us to be free to make our own choices. And I want all of this to be possible without the confrontation that now presents itself in Eastern Europe. But that is fairyland. For whenI turn my eyes back to the world as it is, I see that we are facing the same unpalatable decisions that my father’s and my grandfather‘s generations faced in their turn. The questions that we all hoped had been consigned to the history books are now once more staring us in the face. For we may, as a nation and as a member of NATO, be called out on a confrontation such as the world has not seen for at least 70 years and possibly never before. And for me it would be dodging the issue to take the view that as a likely non-combatant of sixty-six years of age, I will be killing no one. For the truth is that I am delegating the act of defence to others. I am living in the benefit of their acts and I believe they are the right acts in these, the most challenging of circumstances. For it seems to me that compassion itself demands that we support the oppressed in this war. Buddhist friends will likely tell me that I have fallen at the first hurdle of the Eightfold Noble Path – right understanding; for if you have the insights into the first three Noble Truths, then there is perfect understanding of the Dharma. I am entirely ready to believe that as yet I lack such an understanding; that it may yet come. But for the present, my honest belief is that there are circumstances, though they may be very few, in which the confrontational resistance of oppression is not only right, it is essential and obligatory. And I believe that the present conflict in Eastern Europe is one of them.  

The UK has largely led the world’s support for Ukraine. Most western nations have followed that lead, some, albeit reluctantly. But European recipients of Russian energy now face profoundly difficult choices. Germany, Italy and a whole host of other European nations confront, right now at the moment of writing, the prospect of severe reductions in the supply of Russian oil. This will very likely be followed by similar supply reductions of gas, leading into a winter of severe fuel shortage. Such storage capacity as Europe possesses is full to 60% of capacity –way below that which is needed for the winter. Energy rationing is being proposed by the EU. Recession, a very severe recession, is predicted to follow such phenomenal supply shortages. And we are not talking about the loss of a few jobs and bankruptcies of a some teetering businesses. The IMF predicts that if Russian gas is cut off, Germany will face an immediate fall in GDP of 3%; Italy, twice that.

A terrible choice faces the leaders of such nations. Support for Ukraine of the kind needed to drive Putin’s army from its borders will almost certainly lead to sustained and expanded termination of energy supplies with appalling economic and human consequences. Failure to support Ukraine leads to a steady advances by the aggressors until, potentially, the complete annexation of the country is achieved.

Russia produces around 14% of the world’s oil. It is the world’s second largest gas producer after the USA.Perhaps more importantly, it supplies over 40% of Europe’s gas. Ukraine itself holds vast, largely unexploited, reserves of both oil and gas. Combine them with Russia’s and you end up with a commanding holding of world fossil fuel energy reserves in the hands of one nation; of one man; of one madman. Do we circumvent the problem by dashing for net zero? Certainly – but not nearly soon enough to make a difference.

If that is not enough to concentrate the mind, consider also the threat to world food supply. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, delivering 17% of all wheat sold internationally; Ukraine, another 9%. In the UK, we define an effective corporate monopoly as the control of 20% of any market. Do the math. At the risk of repetition, we are again talking about domination of the world’s wheat supply by one nation; one man; one madman. Corn? Food oil? Turn where you will, it doesn’t look much better.

What this boils down to is that this winter much of Europe faces a choice between, on the one hand, turning off the heating and the engines of the economy and, on the other, capitulation toRussian advances that will give Putin an effective dominant hand in the world’s energy and food supply. The former prospect is beyond sobering; the latter, beyond terrifying.

What fractures will we see appear in the resolution of the western alliance as particularly challenged nations, perhaps Germany, perhaps Italy, succumb to the preference for appeasement and the figment of ease that capitulation superficially offers? Maintaining a unified front is not so easy when your children are hungry and your old folk are dying of cold.

But whatever choices are made, albeit that they are far beyond the personal reach of most of us, we as individuals will be forced into a choice of our own. It is the same choice that our parents made, that our grandparents made, the same as that made by generations stretching back into dim prehistory before them. Metaphorically or literally, will we take up arms against this sea of trouble? Or do we prefer to hold true to our belief that conflict and confrontation are inherently wrong?

What will you do?

What will I do?

I turn my eyes back to the swayingForest and the crumbling concrete road. “Peace and safety,” they said. “Hitler has no quarrel with Britain,” they said. “It will all be over by Christmas,”they said.

They are still saying it.



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