John Gittings

WorldWarOneWatch No. 3
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The Real Sacrifice, 1914-18

[WorldWarOneWatch No. 3]

The Real Sacrifice:  John Gittings, August 2014      

At ceremonies up and down the country, this week and on similar occasions over the next four years, we shall be urged not to forget….  Let Us Not Forget…  Lest We Forget….

We are asked not to forget the sacrifice, the “ultimate sacrifice” as it is often called, of hundreds of thousands, millions, of lives. And there is often a sub-text here that we should not question too closely the cause for which they died, because to do so would belittle that “sacrifice”.

The word sacrifice can mean making a sacrifice, giving up voluntarily something which we value for the sake of something  more worthy.  What could be more valued than one’s life, we may ask? The answer given at the time of the First World War was patriotism, national self-respect,  the King -- or the Kaiser --  the empire.  Certainly many combatants invoked these ideas when they faced daily death. If they were going to sacrifice their lives they should at least do it for a good cause. 

But the reality was that they were not making a sacrifice; they were being sacrificed, because those who sent them to their death had not had the wit to avoid the war – and some leaders on both sides actively wanted a war – or, once it had begun, refused to search for compromise.

Some argue that the First World War was after all a Just War in its origins. Yet one of the main criteria of Just War theory is that the result of the war should be proportionate, that the damage it causes should be less than its benefit, and this was manifestly not so.

We cannot know for sure what would have happened if the war had been avoided, but we can surmise that the outcome would have been far less catastrophic for 20th century history. We know only too well what did happen: the eight to ten million deaths among the contending military forces, the six to seven  millions of civilians who died directly or as an indirect consequence, and the millions more casualties who often suffered to their end of their lives.  . 

We also know that the First World War laid a terrible groundwork for the Second World War, through the punitive peace settlement of Versailles, the dislocation of entire national communities, and the arbitrary drawing of new lines on the map – the consequences of which we continue to witness in the Middle East today.  If the Second World War, unlike the First, is regarded  as just and inevitable, our judgement should be made in the context of this earlier history.

Those who started the First World War had ignored the basic principle, expounded by peace thinkers for centuries before, that the long-term cost of war is almost always higher than any short-term gain. And those who defend it today are discounting the enormity of its cost and its poisoned legacy : perhaps they fear that if we condemn it we will then go on to condemn other more recent wars. They also brush aside the serious arguments put forward by many – not only so-called “pacifists” – before 1914 that arms races lead to war, that disputes should be settled by negotiation and arbitration, and that war was not only immoral but irrational in the new cosmopolitan world of the 20th century.

So let us not forget the sacrifice of those who died, but let us not forget that it was an unnecessary sacrifice imposed on millions of people who had not caused it or wanted it. This is the simple but inescapable truth which was expressed in that simple but powerful poem by Wilfred Owen, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Message for Oxford CND memorial event, 4 August 2014