Interview with Emily Johns about The World Is My Country
by Ian Sinclair
Since last year we have been in the midst of the centenary commemorations of the First World War.
Emily Johns, co-editor of the monthly newspaper Peace News, believes the often nationalistic tone of the public discourse has been a continuation of pro-military campaigns like Armed Forces Day and Help For Heroes. These have been “created as a response to people’s dissatisfaction with war and various governments commitment to going to war”, the 51-year old peace activist argues as she speaks to me in Peace News’s Caledonian Road office.
“I think the government has been putting a lot of effort into trying to counter that shift”, she says about the public opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “And where you put that concentration is cultural.”
Realising the commemorations would focus on the idea of military sacrifice, Johns teamed up with her Peace News colleague Gabriel Carlyle to create The World Is My Country, a 100-page alternative history of the First World War that celebrates the people and movements opposed to the conflict.
With Carlyle’s lively prose interspersed with ten posters painted by Johns, the booklet is populated by many fascinating characters and stories – from philosopher Bertrand Russell being banned from a third of Britain to the setting up of The Women’s Peace Crusade, a countrywide socialist movement pressing for peace negotiations. Johns’s favourite tale of resistance is of Tribunal, the newspaper of the No-Conscription Fellowship, an organisation which supported Conscientious Objectors. With the male members of the group in prison, the paper was run by women who had gained organisational experience as Suffragettes before the war. Under police surveillance, proof copies were secretly delivered by an old woman with a pram. “Whenever their printer ran out of type for producing their paper they would go round to the Daily Mail’s printers and borrow type from them”, Johns laughs. “The Daily Mail didn’t realise it!”
Taking a view I haven’t seen in any of the media coverage of the 1914-18 conflict, the booklet begins by noting “The very term ‘The First World War’ is highly ideological.” Johns explains: “It’s a way of eradicating the past several hundred years of a continuous world war which was being waged by the colonising European nations against the rest of the world. At the end of the nineteenth century European countries are having these brutal wars of suppression and colonisation against people of the Global South.”
What does she hope readers will take from the book? “Recognising that anti-war movements have been very, very strong for the past 100 years and that political action against militarism was deeply embedded in Britain and Europe and other parts of the world when the First World War started”, she replies. “It was a very serious objection to how the elites were governing and creating the world.”
Making links between the past and present, she also hopes the book will encourage people to expand their understanding of “honourable sacrifice” beyond the idea it “is solely about a military sacrifice”.
“A lot of Conscientious Objectors died in prison in Britain because they refused to go and fight people”, she notes. “That level of commitment and sacrifice is something to measure up to in a time now when we are engaged or about to engage in wars around the world.”
The World Is My Country is published by Peace News Press, priced £5. To purchase the book or to invite Emily or Gabriel to speak visit http://theworldismycountry.info/