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.