We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1 – a terrible and unnecessary conflict involving 30 different countries. It was a war dreamt up by the elite in Britain, Germany, France, Russia and other countries, but a war fought between ordinary people who died in their millions. We must remember those who died, but with a deep shame. We dare not ‘celebrate’ the war or glorify or glamourise it in any way.
The cost of war
In the first world war, there were about 15 million civilian and military deaths. Around 20 million people were wounded. Nearly 10 million soldiers lost their lives: a third of these to spanish flu in the appalling conditions in the trenches. Russia, Germany and France bore the brunt of the casualties.
We cannot measure the cost of war by deaths alone. We need to think about the many who lost their homes and livelihoods, the distress among grieving families, lives ruined by disabilities, the damage to people’s lives caused by hatred, and the breakdown in economies which affected the poor throughout the world.
A cost/benefit analysis?
I am not qualified sufficiently to do a detailed cost/benefit analysis of war, but there are seldom any benefits to anybody as a result of war.
- Is the average Iraqi better off because of the invasion of his country and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein?
- Did the war in Vietnam do anything more than delay the advance of communism by a few years?
- In the civil war in Sri Lanka, neither the Tamils or the Sinhala majority achieved any long-term benefit.
- I suppose you could say that the brutal Roman conquests brought a measure of peace and prosperity to a part of the world.
Self-sacrifice or human-sacrifice?
In the musical Les Miserables, Marius who survives the revolutionary fighting is smitten by grief for his friends who have been killed in the conflict.
Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more.
I do not wish to minimise the bravery of those killed in battle. But did an ordinary soldier in the trenches of the first world war really lay down his own life, or was he murdered by the generals who played the numbers game and sent countless millions ‘over the top’ to a certain death. Self-sacrifice? It looks more like human-sacrifice to me, where those in authority murder innocent victims to appease the gods of egotism and empire.
Patriotism and hatred.
Patriotism has its place and is best left to sport. But, how easily patriotism turns to hatred. Often a ‘friendly’ football match between countries provokes hooliganism and a hatred of the opposition. Defend patriotism if you must, but be sure not to stir up hatred in yourself or others.
Before the first world war, the British Government and the newspapers stirred up patriotism by demonising the German ‘Hun’ and creating hatred for the ‘enemy’. In Germany, Russia and France the same was happening. We paid a terrible price for that hatred and so did the entire world.
A love that asks no questions?
When I was in secondary school, many of the teachers personally knew ‘old boys’ who had been killed in the second world war. Once a year we would fervently sing this hymn which still stirs me emotionally and musically whenever I hear it in spite of some dubious lyrics.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
How our politicians would like us to love our country and not ask any questions. Frankly it was the lack of questioning on all sides which caused the slide into the total warfare of the first world war. If we live in a democracy and it is our duty to ask questions.
It may seem glamorous and sentimental to talk about love standing the test, never faltering, and undaunted. The reality however was that the ordinary soldiers had no choice. They were not laying down their own lives in selfless devotion, but those who sought to gain from the war, tied them to the altar as in a human sacrifice, and made them pay the final price.
Remember with humility and sorrow
So when we remember the 100th anniversary of the first world war, let us remember with a sense of humility and shame. Dismiss sentimentality, glamorisation and glorification. Remember too those, on both sides, who sent millions to their death. Follow the teaching of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and remember those who died ‘on the other side’.
Above all let us personally determine that we will do all we can to prevent war. For those who have suffered civil war in your own country, determine that peace and harmony will prevail again. For those in the middle of strife, remember Jesus words, “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Question your own politicians and involve yourself in politics . Seek not just the interests of your own nation but the common good of mankind.