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Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Day of Victory: Whose Victory Is It Anyway?

I've pondered on war and the consequences of violent conflict since we started hearing of the escalating violence in Syria. Yet, I considered writing about war and violence in earnest since in Malta, we celebrate Victory Day today, the 8th September.

Of course, September 8 also marks an important feast on the Catholic calendar as it's the commemoration of the birth of the Virgin Mary which is still a significant figure for a large number of Maltese citizens who tend to identify themselves as Catholic - even if they may not practice the faith. However, it's also a national holiday since two important events crucial to the history of Malta happened on that fateful 8th September.

The first event occurred in 1565 when Malta, then under the rule of the Holy Order of the Knights of Saint John, who with the help of the inhabitants managed to force a retreat of the forces coming from what was then an expanding Ottoman Empire. Apart from preserving the Christian religious identity many Maltese had adopted back then, historians have argued that if the Ottoman Empire had captured Malta as it had Rhodes, the whole of Christian Europe of the time would have been under threat.

The second victory happened in 1943 when Malta was saved from sure famine as convoys with essential food and supplies got to Malta thanks to the surrender of Italy. At the time, Malta was, once again, under foreign rule. This time, our country was a British colony.

If one thinks about it, none of these conflicts were initiated by the Maltese inhabitants themselves. One was taken up by the Knights of Saint John and, the other, by the British Empire. Granted, our descendants had it in their interest to protect their land and the limited resources they had from imposing powers and the intervention of our colonisers has, undoubtedly, saved us from certain invasion.

It’s also worth noting that our former “enemies" don’t exist as such any more. Italy is no longer fascist. The Ottoman Empire has disappeared. The same can be said about our past colonisers. Britain is no longer a great empire, even if it preserves some of its former aspirations, in a way, through the Commonwealth. As for the Knights of Saint John, it has no land of its own and only functions today more like a philanthropic organisation.

It can be argued that these victories ensured that Malta became the country it is today. Yet, these victories may be said to be victories for Malta but not necessarily belonging to the “Maltese” inhabitants. At the same time, those we had so vilified in the past are no longer our “enemies”. In fact, descendants of the old colonisers now join us in Europe and are our partners as well.

Unfortunately, some may celebrate Victory Day for the wrong reasons. Indeed, some appear to rejoice in Malta having slaughtered the invading soldiers of the Ottoman Empire or, else, celebrate the many deaths sustained by the fascist Italian forces and their humiliating defeat..

True, we may find the values that our “enemies” held , inconsistent to our own principles and ideals or even find them morally deplorable. However, we must not lose sight that beyond the "monstrosities" we project upon our "enemy", there are still human beings just like us. Besides, each side in the conflictt lost lives.

And many times, it is the younger generations who suffer the most in bloody conflicts since they are the strongest and usually the healthier people of a population and end up fighting the battles of others. Here, it's important to ask ourselves why? Why all this loss of life? One sure thing is that all this happens again and again. It is happening again right now in Syria and wherever there is violent conflicts taking place.

Granted, there may be various reasons for war. However, all may be rooted in a failure of communication. A failure to see other human beings as being our brothers and sisters. Clinging to power and control because we desire more. We become unresponsive to the pain of other humans because, in our mind, they cease to be human but become symbols of beliefs we despise. Violence and war becomes our only response to people we feel we lost control over.

In this sense, I find it a bit confusing to speak of victory on “Victory Day”. Yes, it’s a day when we remember all those who have died and whom made it possible for Malta and the Maltese to be what they are today. Yet, it shouldn’t be a manifestation in which we express our pride for having killed off invaders. Rather, it should be an occasion to remember all those who perished because they believed that they were fighting for a good cause - even if they might have been blindly following their leaders and superiors. Even if they might have been unaware of the ulterior or perverse motives of those who should be leading them.

On both occasions, Malta’s inhabitants where only trying to defend their land. Indeed, being an island, it was the only piece of rock they had. On the other hand, it must be said that both the Knights of Saint John during the Great Siege and the British during the war, protected Malta mainly due its location in the Mediterranean between Southern Europe and North Africa since it offers both powers with an ideal strategic position to conduct military operations against their enemies at that time. Strictly speaking, their effort to protect Malta wasn't an act performed out of any altruism or motivated by a genuine concern for the inhabitants. In fact, to the British of the time, Maltese people remained natives and naturally inferior to the English.

In truth, the divisions both us and the colonisers might have set remain creations of our minds and of the societies of our time. In fact,as history changed, we realise how meaningless many of the national values we believed in back then. And, except for a number of extremist and xenophobes, we don't don't explicitly believe that there are inferior and superior peoples.

But what does all this have to do with Syria?

We have a civil war escalating in Syria. Again, we witness a struggle of powers whom have defined one another in one of two main camps. Those who support the regime and those who want it destroyed. Some minorities find themselves excluded from both and threatened by an uncertain future. Battling parties are all competing for power and control. Some because they are being unjustly persecuted, others because they want to cling to power. Others even support one side over the other simply because they are seeking their own interests or justly fear that change might destroy them and deprive them of their freedom.

This is human nature. Everyone seeks to survive or gain advantage because they fail to acknowledge a common humanity. Even if war and violent action may be justified when parties persist in destroying the innocent and put lives at risk, it should be only the last resort and it should be moderate. I suspect that the path of war and violence appears to be favoured by Western powers depending on their affiliations with Syria in this case. So, it’s disheartening to hear that the US is close to undertake military action against the Syrian regime. However, I fear that this might cause greater waste of life and enforce divisions between the Syrian people - who will be the ones losing out in each case. Yet non-action would be equally devastating and unacceptable. That’s clear.

Yet, has the world took time to explore whether there are possibilities of peace and dialogue. Have we thought of ways of bringing justice to Syria by holding the perpetrators of violence accountable to their actions and intervening with a motivation to foster peace and not violence.

In this I join in the appeals of both HH Pope Francis and of his HH the 14th Dalai Lama in their call for the world to seek peace rather than war.

In war, there are no victors but what remains are broken families who lost loved ones. What remains is a taste of resentment that outlives any war.

What remains is suffering. Suffering that we create ourselves.

Violent action rarely achieves its objectives. It might bring about more immediate results, but it doesn't address the real root of the problem but only treats its symptoms.

I recall the saying that history is written by the victors as I conclude reflecting on victory day and on the events taking place in Syria. We may rejoice at the fact that Malta hasn't fallen to our past "enemies". Indeed, some attribute our survival during the Great Siege and World War II to the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary since, as I explained earlier, the 8th September is the feast of her nativity. However, while it may be pointless to speculate whether Malta would have been worse off if we had fallen to our past "enemies". But, I am sure that if history had turned out differently and Malta became Malta Arabia or Malta Fascista, I'm sure that there would be celebrations going on of a different kind. And I wouldn't be who I am today if I would have been ever been born in such a parallel Earth. Yet, I am here today and, thus, I have to carry my own responsibilities and do the little I can to make the world a better one than when I found it.

Granted, we have little or no power to change the world on our own.

Yet, we cannot afford not to care while thousands of people around the world, human beings like us, are suffering unnecessary suffering because they fail to appreciate the fact that they depend on one another and no one can claim to be better than the other.

I hope in peace - even if I know war is looming.

I still believe there’s a place for dialogue - even if the world seems to have drawn its own conclusions.

I believe that the only victory is a victory over the enemy within that seeks to fill us with vain pride that forces us to crush our fellow brothers and sisters.

Remembering the fallen is good, yes, but clinging to what we think we are is but a harmful attachment.

May there be peace in Syria and around the world.

May no more people die in vain.

May today be a better day. For our tomorrow depends on it!

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