The nineteenth century ended on the fourth of August 1914. In one of those small ironies of history it expired only fifty miles from the battle field of Waterloo where it had begun. With it ended an extraordinary period of material, scientific and political progress unmatched in human civilisation.
It had seen an unprecedented expansion in wealth creation which would lift tens of millions of people out of poverty. It was imbued with the optimistic spirit of the English, Scottish and Virginian enlightenments ; which spirit would drive the expansion of democracy and its institutions across Europe and North America. For the first time the children of the poor would learn to read and write. Their parents would vote. Social and economic mobility meant that for millions their beginning would not necessarily be their end.It was killed off by a war whose savagery, duration and aftermath were without precedent or prophet.
That terrible war which would birth the twentieth century is being more widely commemorated and discussed in Ireland than it has been for decades. That we should remember our dead is a natural and wholesome instinct. However it is to do a disservice to ourselves and those who fell to romanticise the war in which they died.
Why and how Europe stumbled into the Great War is still debated. The reasons why individual Irish men chose to risk death were hugely varied. Some surely went out of a sense of idealism, some went to keep the union intact while others went to further the national cause. Many went because it gave them a wage and way out of poverty. What we can say with certainty is while the genesis of the war is unclear its outcomes were catastrophic.
The twentieth century was poisoned by the conflagration which was quickly to be known as the First World War. It is impossible to overstate the evil that it gestated and the misery that would flow directly from the bloodied soil of Flanders. The former optimism in the inexorable progress of liberal democracy and the Market economy was shattered. Across Europe young democracies faltered and failed to be replaced by ideologues and Strong men. Russia falls to the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin will lead to Stalin and from there the virus of tyranny will spread across the Globe. Pol Pot , Mao and Ceaucescu all have their roots in the Great War.
Contrary to folk myth and idiots, war can do nothing but harm to the wealth of nations. It devours humanity and treasure with equal ease. The damage done directly to the economy of Europe was tremendous. In the short term it led to chaos in Germany and created the political space necessary for Nazism to establish a real political presence. The road to Auschwitz is built in 1914.
Not one of the protagonists on the eve of war had any inkling of the carnage that would unfold over the next four years. Certainly none of them could have dreamt of the political landscape that would be the result of their going to war. Had they I cannot but believe that even at the last minute the unstoppable would have been stopped.
If there is a lesson for today’s leaders to learn then that is it. We cannot know the future. To believe that we can engage in war and confidently predict the outcome and the consequences is hubris. And hubris will destroy us.
It is estimated that the total cost of the United States involvement in prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be between four and six trillion dollars. To put an Irish perspective on it, that would cover more than one hundred bailouts. That is the cost to the USA alone. And can we say that money has purchased the world a greater degree of security or the people of those blighted nations better lives.
It is no longer acceptable to wage wars to win territory, capture slaves or plunder treasure. Now we are invited to kill in the name of the Good, The Right, The Weak, The Oppressed. The media create good guys and bad guys without really understanding the place, the people or the conflict.
The world is a mess. But it always has been. What we endure is the burden of knowledge. What once would have gone unknown and unreported now we see images of live and direct from the scene. Our grandparents would have learned about a genocide in central Africa as fait accompli, a distant historical tragedy. We saw it via satellite. Inevitably this provokes a human response.
We feel when faced with horrors on our tv screens the need to Do Something. That impulse is noble but very dangerous.
Two of the requirements for a just war in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas are a reasonable chance of victory and that the war is not a cause of greater suffering than the evil it seeks to overcome. When we look to the Middle East and elsewhere and see the consequences of war can we honestly say that they are not worse than the horrid peace.
Moreover how can we say that the chances of victory are reasonable when we struggle to define what a victory might actually be? Does this mean that we should never go to war? Should we be passive in the face of evil and insensible to the suffering of people enduring desperate oppression? I don’t know. What I am certain of is hubristic belief that we can change cultures over night and parachute in our values along with the ammunition is disastrous for the west, for the men we send to fight, for our economies , for wider peace and often for the poor benighted people we decide liberate.
And never believe them when they tell us the boys will be home by Christmas. Many of the boys will never come home at all.