Honouring the Dead to end all War
Kevin P Clements
Monday the 4th August 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. This year many people throughout New Zealand will observe this moment at 5.45 pm with silent, candle lit vigils at central war memorials. There will be one in Dunedin. It will start at First Church and then move in silence to the War Memorial.
These quiet vigils will provide a chance to remember those who fought and those who died a hundred years ago. They will also help us focus on those who resisted and those who did not. It is hoped that remembering the First World War will remind us of “the pity of war” and ensure renewed dedication to ensuring that such wars never happen again.
These commemorations take place against a backdrop of continuing bloody wars in Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Africa and South Asia. The challenge confronting us in the 21st century is how to remember and honour the war dead of the First World War by ending all war in the present. If we can do this we will truly honour their sacrifice. .
This First World War laid the foundations for the Second World War and, in different ways, stimulated many of the colonial wars of the latter half of the 20th century. We are living with its legacy still.
Its important to try and understand its lessons for the 21st century. Nathan Gardels , in a recent issue of the Huffington Post, (31 July 2014) asked 7 Harvard academics for their views on the lessons learned from the First World War and this is what they came up with. I have truncated six of their arguments and added my own comments.
1. “Just because war would be folly and self-defeating does not mean that it cannot happen. None of the leaders of Europe in 1914 would have chosen the war they caused — and in the end all lost -Graham Allison . This raises some important questions about the capacity of modern leaders to understand the short and long term consequences of their actions. Does Israel, for example, understand the likely consequences of its current engagement in Gaza?
2. “History is typically assumed to be the result of great forces, strategic trends, well-thought-out plans, but is often a function of unimportant and unintended events, a ‘shot heard around the world’. ” -Chuck Freilich Its important that we respond to these small events with calmness and insight if we are to avoid major cataclysms.
3. “A salient lesson of World War I for decision-makers should be humility about predicting consequences in a transitional epoch. The leaders of the era were wrong about almost everything “ -Ben Heineman It’s rare for decision makers to get things right when making decisions to use violence. It’s a fundamental ethical principle not to make irreversible short term decisions,.
4. “Historical analogies, though sometimes useful for precautionary purposes, become dangerous when they convey a sense of historical inevitability. WWI was not inevitable…. War is never inevitable, though the belief that it is can become one of its causes.” -Joseph S. Nye We need to learn from the past if we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. We should certainly avoid self fulfiulling prophecies. We are the masters our own fate.
5. “The main lesson to draw from the onset of the Great War is that serious miscalculation leading to war is possible even in a modern world that is well connected and deeply integrated. -Kevin Ryan. No decision to go to war should be taken lightly and most political decision makers would be wise to incorporate popular as well as intelligent wisdom into their decision making before making such decisions.
6. “‘You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,’ Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops in August 1914. Yet, before autumn had ended, a million combatants lay dead. Fifteen million more — soldiers and civilians — would perish before the armistice” William Tobey. Its important not to take political leaders comments on war at face value. Its really important to interrogate all that passes for political wisdom so that we do not stumble into catastrophe.
I hope that these candlelit vigils on Monday night will help us all focus our minds on how to learn these lessons from the First World War so that never again will we sacrifice whole generations to false political principles.