On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the guns fell silent on the western front and the First World War was over. It was called the War to End All Wars and I’m sure that the irony was not lost on those who fought on the same battlegrounds only a few decades later in a war that eclipsed even the Great War. The current conflicts around the world are testament to the fact that the Second World War was not the War to End All Wars either.
Thus, every eleventh of November we have a day of remembrance. But what are we remembering? I think the true meaning of this day is as layered as an onion; we can consider the end of the First World War, which is worthy of commemorating, but surely this is rather less poignant than it was when the veterans of the Great War were only a generation away. They seem to be in the distant past now. Almost no-one survives from the Great War today; while a tragedy it is a distant one.
Are we then remembering all of the great conflicts of the twentieth century? Two World Wars and countless other smaller but no less tragic wars that it would be too depressing to list. Should we add the genocide and ethnic cleansing into that list too? They are certainly worth remembering. But is this all? Is the scope of our mourning and contemplation restricted to one hundred years of slaughter?
Oughtn't we to cast our eyes back over the arc of history and reflect on the sheer brutality of our species? History is drenched in the blood of all those who have died. Ever since we have been building tools to aid our survival, at the same time we have been building more and more sophisticated ways of slaughtering one another. War is a constant theme of history and it can get depressing to flick through the history books and see the same destructive tendencies rearing their ugly heads again and again. At times it can seem that the history of mankind is little more than a history of conflict.
And for what? For what do we fight? Why has all this blood been shed? For what purpose? No doubt those who waged their wars had their reasons; greed maybe, or religious fervour, but the men who lived and died in the trenches in the First World War were not the causes of those conflicts; they were pawns. They chose to fight for their country and there is a lot of rhetoric around about their ultimate sacrifice, but many of the men who died were conscripts in the First World War. In many other wars the soldiers were misguided, press ganged or forced by sheer desperation to join the army and go and ‘fight for their country’.
What do these wars achieve? Territorial gain maybe, or wealth of another sort, perhaps in the form of loot. Materials benefit is no doubt wreaked for the victor, but wealth will do nothing to ease the suffering of those who have lost loved ones, or raise the countless dead from the ground. War can make the strong rich and the weak subservient, but it cannot deal out any form of justice. The victors of war have no right to pillage the wealth of the defeated; they had no right to attack them in the first place. Victory in war; or indeed any type of conflict, does not grant a right to the wealth of the defeated; might conveys no right to anything. War achieves nothing. War is futile.
However, can it be justified? Can the use of force against another human being ever me morally justifiable? Thus far I have not spoken directly of the victims of war. I have not spoken of those who have war forced upon them. Is it moral to fight back if the bully tries to steal your wealth? Yes. The use of force is justifiable under one condition: it is used to defend your rights. There are two key words here; ‘defend’ means that force is only just if it is a reaction to the instigation of force from another. The second is ‘your’, this means that you may only use force to defend yourself, your values and your rights. This is not to say that you should not help other people if they are the victims of force, but just as your own self-interest can and should benefit others, it is not your duty to step in on behalf of another.
If war can only be rationally justified if it is defensive, why is history littered with piles of bodies; the victims of countless conflicts? The answer is simply that doing what is right is hard and doing what is wrong is easy. It is very simple to get what you wish by bullying and forcing other to submit to you, especially is you are stronger than them. Similarly it is easy to cower and capitulate when the bullies come to rob you. It is much harder to get what you want by mutual agreement with someone who has what you want and is willing to trade it for something that you have and he wants. This is both more practical and more just. We can see from history that this is without a doubt the best way of gaining wealth; the societies that have engaged in trade rather than war have become far more prosperous than those what have engaged in war rather than trade.
So, what are we remembering on the eleventh of November? The end of the First World War? The conflict of the Twentieth Century as a whole? The entirety of all conflict throughout mankind’s history? All of them, perhaps. But the most important thing that we remember on this day, and the most important reason why we wear the poppy is the futility of war. The remembrance services that will go on tomorrow, the silences that will fall upon the world periodically all serve to remind us that our past is littered with mistakes. It is littered with people taking the easy road, not the right one. If you take anything away from the next week, take away the thought that if only we used reason and mutual consent, rather than force and compulsion, we might be able to lay the memory of the innumerable dead to rest and live in a world were we no longer trade in force, but in reason.
But until that day, we will remember them.