Parallels 100 years on
100 years ago a conflict started that brought death to one household in 6 in the UK. That we should mark this event would seem appropriate, but what is an appropriate mark?
Yesterday’s events (as seen on TV – 4th August 2014) appeared to avoid tackiness and triumphalism and were probably moving for those directly involved. But if we get four and a bit years of this are we going to be left feeling that there is a lack of substance?
Will it (the Commemoration of the Great War) pass the “So What” test?
This is a period that has almost passed from living memory into history. All the veterans who fought are now gone and all that remain are the children of the Great War – and many of them, like my father born a few weeks after his father was killed, are also gone.
So, if it is to be history what are we to learn from it?
I would suggest that individually we have not changed as much as we think.
- Large numbers of our young men are still “up for a fight”.
- Patriotism and belligerence are still close cousins.
- The military and military adventures (regular or irregular) are appealing to those who find that their home environment offers little.
- Men can still be inspired, often by religious leaders, to go abroad to avenge atrocities visited on downtrodden groups.
- Men, after hard fighting, can feel that it dishonours the fallen to sue for peace and that “too many have died to abandon the struggle now – we must fight it out to the end”.
Nationally we have yet to square the circle of maintaining national sovereignty whilst expecting (other) states to conform to “international norms”.
Nations tend to think that they (and those who agree with them) know best. The so-called Great Powers are often the worst offenders, their leaders dividing the world into “good folks” and “bad folks”. They are happy to accuse “bad folks” of “War Crimes” but are silent when the “good folks” transgress. And when they are accused or found wanting their reaction is often to question the authority of those who judge or even to threaten withdrawal from the authority that cannot see things “their way”.
I fear in the last 100 years we have not learnt, individually or collectively, very much.
Will the next four years of commemoration change that? Or will we get submerged in the awfulness of war and spout trite words about “never again” without thinking that the causes of war are still there; national injustices, desires for more “Lebensraum” for a chosen race, scarce resources, annexation of territory, wounded national pride from previous defeats, harsh reparations, perceived existential threats.
If we do decide our conclusion from four years of commemoration is “never again”, will we match that ambition with a determination to remove those causes of war?
And if those causes cannot be removed, what will we do?
If it involves another country – look the other way (possibly compounding our abdication with hypocritical empty weasel words of condemnation)?
And if it directly involves us – cave in and appease the aggressor?
“Never again” cannot be the lone response to the awfulness of war – and we should resist any feeling that it is the only permitted response to the Great War. Given human nature, I fear war is at times inevitable and we need to find a fuller response to aggression and the horrors of war – whether Great War Passchendaele or modern-day Gaza. Finding that fuller, more mature response, we owe to our Grandchildren in remembrance of our Grandfathers.