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 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.