04 August, 2014

Pro Patria

The one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. I have always thought I understood the Second World War, with its clear threat of invasion, but this previous one seems mysterious, even now, which is perhaps why it holds such fascination for the newspapers.

Commemoration began months ago, in an almost triumphal tone, as if the start of a war which killed millions were something to celebrate. Now it seems to be on a personal level, respecting 'our heroes' who died for our liberty.

Let me say I don't think the First World War was about our liberty and I think a hero risks his life knowing the risks. They volunteered, most of them - there was no conscription until 1916 - in utter ignorance.

They believed somehow that there was a glory which transcended dying. They must have been shocked at the lack of individualism engendered by so many troops and so much mechanisation. Agamemnon and Achilles were not mown down in their thousands, nameless, numberless corpses. It was no place for heroes. Were they naive, or were they duped?

If any of the Prime Ministers in my lifetime had asked me to go to war I should have looked very carefully, not just at the risks, but at the motive. Supposing Tony Blair had, from the safety of his bunker, asked for the ultimate sacrifice for what he perceived as the nation's duty!

Those were different, trusting times. No one supposed that Asquith or Grey had in fact no idea what a war would be like.

I can't help feeling that our present mood of scepticism and mistrust of politics, regretted by some, in fact makes our time far happier. Perhaps that is the lesson of the Great War.

As to the rest of it, we still seem keen to start a fight. We and the French bombed Libya to remove Kadafy without the slightest clue as to what would come after him. Our then Foreign Secretary, Hague, wanted to fight in Syria, in support of the very same Sunni Muslims who are now causing havoc in Iraq. And Iraq itself is a disaster, largely of our making. So is Afghanistan, which has lasted longer than the First and Second World wars together. Finally Hague (again) was down in Kiev supporting a mob which overthrew Ukraine's democratically elected government, ably supported by those great international statesmen Hermann van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton.

It seems the people have learned to say no, but the politicians have not. 

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