HERE is something terribly compelling about the First World War.
Like some ghastly pile-up on the motorway, you cannot help but
stare at the horror. There is the overwhelming scale of the
destruction - ten million people were killed.
There is also the sheer density of the war: most of the
slaughter occurred along a battleline that moved barely miles in
four, long years. It was the ugliest of wars; a desperate,
drawn-out, slog of a struggle, unredeemed by cinema-worthy actions
such as Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, or D-Day.
It was also without any ultimate triumph. The war ended with all
sides in blood-drained exhaustion. This was a conflict without
glory and honour; a terrible slaughter across a ruined landscape.
Wegaze appalled at the horror of the First World War, and then,
aswith the motorway pile-up, we drive on.
This centenary year sees many evaluations and reinterpretations
of the political, military, and social aspects of those terrible
events. While these evaluations are fascinating, I find myself
wondering whether they really address the deep issues that the
First World War highlights so shockingly - namely, the nature of
evil and how we deal with it, issues that have relevance for us
The First World War demonstrates - and this is fundamentally
important - that there is such a thing as evil. As someone whose
life centres on communicating Christian truth, I know that evil
does not simply occur in the context of war, it is a real and
terrible spiritual reality in our world.
In thinking about evil, our culture - so intelligent and
sophisticated in many areas - is frankly out of its depth. We are
technologically literate, but morally naïve. Previous
generationsmight have gone overboard with classifying different
kinds of wickedness, but we have tendedto avoid thinking seriously
aboutit at all.
HE First World War is a striking lesson in how destructive and
hateful evil actually is. We should pause for a moment and
contemplate the fatality figure of ten million, and what that
The next time you look at a war memorial, focus on just one of
those names. Then, imagine what that loss represents on a mass
scale, through the years of 1914-18: the parents, the sweethearts
or wives, husbands, children, and friends.
Think of all that they might have done, the things that they
might have created, the joys that they could have experienced, and
what they might have contributed towards the future. And then
remind yourself that all that life and potential was cut
Now, multiply that loss by ten million, and add to it the 20
million injured, the ruined landscapes and destroyed towns, not to
mention the political and economic legacy that was to shape the
world for generations to come. And let us not forget that war is
fertile ground for almost every vice, breeding brutality and
corruption. That is the scale of evil.
Another thing that the First World War illustrates all too
clearly is how evil can acquire a momentum of its own. No one
intended it to be a four-year-long bloodbath; yet, from the first
gunshot in Sarajevo, the fighting descended into the most appalling
The conflict acquired an im-petus of its own, becoming
increasingly intense, brutal, and widespread. As the war
progressed, the scale and range of the weaponry multiplied, growing
more sophisticated and ever more inhuman. There were artillery
barrages, machine guns, and gas. Limits on the use of weapons were
gradually withdrawn; so that, eventually, through Zeppelins and
submarine blockades, there were deliberate attacks against
civilians, miles away from the front line.
IN THE first day of the Battle of the Somme, British casualties
alone were nearly 58,000, almost 20,000 of whom were killed. The
First World War was a juggernaut created by the interaction of
policies, men, and technology. Once started, the war rolled
unstoppably forwards, crushing all beneath it.
One reason why war develops a life of its own is because evil is
contagious. Ordinary, decent people - such as you and me - became
part of the war. Some of them were involved in terrible things, and
many of them justified these ac-tions as being for the sake of the
One of the most distressing aspects of evil is the way in which
it can hijack religion. Despite Christ's clear teaching that God
and Caesar had different spheres of authority, all sides in the
First World War were ready to blur that distinction. For example,
German soldiers had "Gott mit uns" ("God with us")
inscribed on their helmets. And, on the Allied side, there was much
talk of "for God and King", as if this was a mutually agreed
venture between equal parties.
During the American Civil War, a pious cleric expressed to
Abraham Lincoln the hope that "God was on our side". The President
wisely rebuked him, pointing out that the more pressing issue was
whether they were on God's side. Religious faith is the strongest
of all forces, and we must be wary lest it be diverted to evil
Evil is a reality, and the First World War demonstrated that.
Yet we must do more than simply recognise evil as such - we must
resist it. It is here we face a problem. Evil is so subtle that our
attempts to defeat it are all too often counterproductive. The very
actions that we take to tackle it turn out to be evil themselves.
To defend our own innocents, we all too easily end up killing their
innocents. In the First World War, no side emerged with unbloodied
So how do we combat evil? Here, I must say, with regret, that I
do not feel pacifism to be the right answer. There are times when,
as a last resort, evil must be resisted by force. But, in doing so,
we must constantly be aware of the deadly peril that, in resisting
evil, we ourselves are in danger of doing it.
HOW evil can be contained in the fury of war has occupied great
and good minds for centuries. Two factors contributed to the horror
of the First World War.
The first was a widespread arrogance about human progress and
technology in the years lead-ing up to 1914. That pride persisted
into the war, which was marked throughout by over-confident battle
plans, and impetuous strategies that collapsed into bloody chaos on
Sadly, wartime leaders are rarely gifted with humility. "Blessed
are the meek," Jesus said, "for they will inherit the earth." True,
and the meek and humble are much less likely to blunder into
A second feature that added to the devastation of the First
World War was the way in which people were dehumanised. There had
been wars before in which men were able to kill others without ever
seeing them. With the introduction of the machine gun, the
artillery barrage, and the bomber, however, the separation between
the killers and the killed reached new levels. One of the defining
creations of the First World War was the tank - rumbling over
everything and everyone.
IT IS important to restate the foundational biblical truth: men
and women are made in the image of God, and are of immeasurable
value. Consequently, the danger of dehumanising individuals in the
heat of battle has not gone away. In our modern, digitised world,
military decisions and operations are often made by men and women
seated at screens - completely disconnected from the humanity on
which they are about to inflict devastation. It is alarming to
think that human interaction can be almost eliminated from modern
The First World War speaks tous about how evil needs to be both
recognised and resisted. Yet it would be extraordinary folly to
think that the lessons it teaches us about evil are solely
applicable at the level of international conflict.
All of us live, or work, in situations where there is tension.
We all live in potential conflict zones, and we can all make
decisions, and take actions in such settings that will make things
either better or worse. A key response to conflict and grievance is
to seek to absorb evil, rather than allow it to multiply. The
supreme example is seen in Jesus on the cross - conquering evil by
"Blessed are the peacemakers,"he said, "for they will be called
children of God." It is a high calling. A hundred years ago, a
generation of leaders failed miserably. May God grant that we, in
our day, do better.As Jesus taught us, let us pray: "Our Father in
heaven . . . deliver us from evil."
J. John is a Christian speaker working with the Philo Trust.
More details: www.philotrust.com