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Too many victims in Ukraine and Gaza

OUR first articles commemorating the outbreak of the First World War are a sober reminder of the consequences of escalation. The causes of the war are studied regularly by A-level history students, but in terms of understanding the forces at work in 1914, there is no substitute for a visit to the battlefields and cemeteries of northern Europe. There is an argument for making such school trips obligatory for aspiring statesmen and women. Unfortunately, a military past can have two opposing effects on political leaders. The desirable one, of course, is to fix in their minds that there is nothing that could ever again justify such profligate loss of life. The other, though, is to bolster nationalism: "We must honour the sacrifices made by our soldiers", the leaders say, "by protecting the land that they fought for." Evil must be resisted, but there are peaceful means that might be employed - with more conviction and commitment - in order to head off violence. Sovereignty ought to be respected and defended, but with an intelligence that is now generally lacking. Countries that defend their borders with such rigour against importunate asylum-seekers have little to say to those in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, where both economic forces and population-spread argue for porous national boundaries.

Another insight from the First World War is to extend our definition of victims. At first sight, heavily armed soldiers, whether Ukrainian separatists, Hamas fighters, or members of the Israel Defense Forces, have no call on our sympathy. And yet the ordinary foot-soldier in Flanders, however well armed, was innocent of the guilt of forging the conflict. Many carried into the army their existing venality; many more were brutalised by what they experienced under fire and under the dictates of their officers. And yet any consideration of the evil of the First World War focuses on larger, less personal forces: the militarism of the German state, the complacency of the Allies, the neglectfulness of diplomats, the self-interest of bankers and industrialists, and, everywhere, the disregard for the lives of ordinary people.

It has taken the unquestionable innocence of the latest victims in Ukraine and Gaza to bring home the pointlessness of these present-day conflicts: the boys caught by Israeli shellfire in Gaza harbour on Wednesday last week, at the start of the ground offensive there; a civilian airliner that was passing over Ukraine at the wrong moment. It is encouraging to see the international community galvanised into proposing action to address the two conflicts, and especially non-military action. But we find ourselves once again wondering at the inability of the world's statesmen and -women to put into place effective methods to prevent the escalation of disputes into violent actions. Belligerence creeps into a nation's soul by stages, perhaps as a result of character or history, or simply external provocation. It is important to take action before the innocence of those who would take up arms is lost for another generation.

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