Saturday, April 25, 2015

Lest We Forget

Today is Anzac Day, the day on which we commemorate those who died in the original Australian and New Zealand Army Corps action at Gallipoli in World War 1, and those who have served in the defence of our two countries since. I am always in two minds about such commemorations. On the one hand, I have enormous admiration and gratitude for those who died to defend the relatively free and prosperous societies we have established in countries like Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, I always find myself angry at the fact that we don't seem to have learned the lessons from that brave sacrifice.

World War 1 is particularly instructive because no one can seriously call it a just war. The Kaiser's Germany was no better or worse morally in its actions than Imperial Britain or France and probably better on almost any count than our ally, Russia. Others have written about the bungling and political expediency that led to war and the ridiculous circumstances by which New Zealanders found themselves invading Turkey, a country we had previously had no truck with, in support of the territorial ambitions of Russia, the country we had previously regarded as our biggest threat. But the root causes of the Great War come down to one common factor - the propensity of governments everywhere and at every time to sacrifice the freedom and eventually the lives of its people in pursuit of ever-greater power.

The threat to freedom does not come mainly from without, it comes from within our societies. It comes from those who who see the power of the state as a tool to solve whatever problem they perceive ails us. Initially, they are well-intentioned and the problems universally agreed, such poverty, prejudice and oppression, but sooner or later their sights are turned to people and causes that are nothing more than scapegoats for the wrongs they wish to right - foreigners, rich people, intellectuals or certain religious and ethnic groups. Historical grievances, real or perceived, are dredged out of the deep pool of past conflicts and used to justify present-day prejudices. Minor territorial disputes from earlier ages become reasons for beligerence and eventually actual military aggression. Thus begins war.

I see too many parallels with the origins of the Great War in the actions of governments and the words of demogogues today. As in 1914, there are signs that the long period of comparative peace and prosperity that the Western world has enjoyed is coming to an end. We have a declining superpower and an ascending rival and a host of regional and religious conflicts that threaten to go global. We have economic uncertainty and an end to the sustained growth of the post-World War II decades. This is dry tinder for political pyromaniacs.

The phrase "lest we forget" originally appeared in Rudyard Kipling's poem Recessional and didn't mean what we take it to mean today - that we should remember the fallen. Rudyard intended it to mean that we shouldn't forget what we have. At the time he was, of course, talking about British society and its values of freedom, morality, individual responsibility and respect for the rule of law. To me, this is the more powerful meaning of the phrase. We shouldn't forget those who scacrificed their lives, but more importantly, we shouldn't forget what they sacrificed their lives for.

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