I cannot help reflecting, following Remembrance Day yesterday, how we still seem incapable of learning lessons from the past. In the aftermath of the terrible events of WW1 the victors took their revenge on Germany. In doing so and in the policies that followed the conditions were created that led to the rise of Nazism and the horrors of WW2.
I grew up in the sixties – I entered that decade aged four clutching my Rupert the Bear album. I was taught how great Great Britain was. How it had fought Two World Wars on the side of the good guys. There was a lot of focus in my house on WW2. To my parents this epitomised how noble we as a Nation were, coming to the aid of faraway and obscure Poland and going on to beat the beastly Germans for a second time. We were right to fight WW2; it was a just war. After all the Holocaust made it so.
And in many ways it was. It had to be fought. Then I read AJP Taylor’s the Origins of the Second World War. Written and published in 1961 it promulgated the notion that, right though fighting WW2 was, given the situation in 1939, it may well never have happened but for British, French and, to an extent, U.S. foreign policy in the 1920s and 30s. We shouldn’t forget, Taylor was saying, that our fingerprints were all over the creation of environment, the vacuum, into which extremism could pour. My father hated Taylor but he spoke a lot of sense to me. National self interest and short term politics trump vision and farsightedness each time.
If beasting the Germans in 1920 helped create the conditions that allowed the Nazi extremism to flourish and which led to WW2, then we in Europe have a lot to thank the Russians for. But for their monomaniacal dictator Stalin and his paranoia to create a European buffer in the East after WW2 we may well have bleed Germany dry again post the Second World War. Retribution is a strong emotion and a vote winner with so many dead and so many families devastated. But hooray for the demon in the east, the evil empire; hooray that they had The Bomb. That changed the dynamics. The Munich Airlift and the Marshall Plan followed and stopped any chance of a repeat. The result? Peace in Euope for an unprecedented 70 years. Maybe having a weapon that ensured mutual obliteration helped. Would the need for strength and stability have happened but for the growing fear of Russian expansionism? Wasn’t that the underlying motivation to bulk up Germany in the West, help Austria, keep Italy from the jaws of Communism? I’m sure it wasn’t the political class thinking about 25 years hence.
It didn’t change us overnight – we had a bad scare in Korea – and we in Britain kept up our bellicose instincts in fighting to keep bits of our Empire: in Malaysia, Kenya, Aden, now part of Yemen.
But gradually our role became part of peacekeeping forces. America kept fighting – Vietnam. Russia too – Afghanistan. But absent these two exceptional conflicts the fights tended to be smaller and local, keeping the close spheres of influence in control and only fighting where the super power was confident of winning. The threat of obliteration meant a lot of posturing and sabre rattling but nothing like the bloodshed of the past. Better to jaw-jaw than war-war.
No one liked living under that shadow, though. There had to be a better way and when the Wall came down and China started shopping it seemed it might happen. If everyone believed it. If we just exercised this new found moral authority… the world would be safer.
It is easy to be churlish here and point out that while, restoring the status quo in Kuwait was a right thing to do, leaving Rwanda to suffer was not. Zimbabwe too. North Korea. many examples of where a moral case can be made for intervention but often it is impossible. But at least the world thought about these situations and looked at help. Humanitarian help. It was never enough but it was something. .
9/11 changed everything. As in 1920, a hurt nation lashed out because it needed to and because it could. We supported the US. Supporting an ally is a good thing; Saddam was bad. Ditto the Taleban. But the action was based on revenge however it was dressed up as a moral case for better government and a safer situation back home. So, inexorably British men and women have died as another vacuum was created and as with previous vacuums, extremists flourished.
Today, the same day we remembered the dead of a war begun 100years ago and in many conflicts since, a British drone fired Hellfire missiles on Iraq. We are back fighting. In Europe Ukraine is at war with itself. The threat of a spill over is still real. The Russians don’t have to look very far west for examples of a Nation’s self interested being muddled with its supposed moral authority and, because it can and can probably win, it sends in the troops.
If we are to remember those lost lives in a meaningful way it should be to find a better way to deal with flashpoints and conflicts, to be more considered especially in time of pain and hurt. The families of those poor souls beheaded by Isis want action, revenge. If I saw someone hurting the Textiliste I’d pull the hangman’s cord, even though I am a vehement opponent of capital punishment. As with individuals, so with nations. At the time of the most pain comes the obligation to be the most considered. For those with the biggest ability to lash out, to send in the troops comes the biggest obligation to stop and think. We need to have the self control to stop and think, not because it follows on from a fear of mutual destruction but because it is right.
I will always support the men and women in our military. They are brave and noble and do many fine things in awful conditions. They are sent; they do not ask to go. There are going to be times when we have to fight but we must be certain
We do not have to bequeath to our children and children’s children a future that involves standing in silence heads bowed mourning the recent dead. We can do better.