Thursday, November 11, 2004

Eleven Eleven

Today, Armistice Day, we commemorate the end of the First World War, misnamed "the war to end all wars". Others have commented on the ceremony in Wellington today, where we laid to rest an unknown victim of that war as a monument to all New Zealanders who have died serving their country. But rather than talking about that, I'd like to talk about the war itself.

While Britain (including New Zealand) fought to defend its allies, the First World War cannot truly be said to be a "just war". There was no great cause worth dying for, no "crusade for freedom" as in the war which followed it a mere twenty years later. There was simply pride, greed, and immense stupidity. While the war began with two shots in Sarajevo, the tensions underlying it had been brewing for years. Austria wanted to subjugate its Balkan neighbours. Germany wanted to seize its moment in the sun. France was hungry for revanche, and Britain cynically played its neighbours off against one another to achieve a "balance of power". A network of alliances ensured that a minor scuffle would turn into a Europe-wide conflagration. Deliberate ambiguity and "Chinese whispers" diplomacy allowed the great powers to misjudge each other's intentions. Pride encouraged them to take the risk of military action, and to further misjudge each other's will to fight. And stupidity, sheer stupidity, meant that they did not see the trap that they had laid for themselves. Backing someone into a corner is not the best way to get them to back down, and once one country had decided to fight, everyone else was inevitably dragged in. The resulting war was a pointless slaughter, four long bloody years of mud and murder - and about as "moral" or worthwhile as the petty dynastic struggles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This is not to say that we should condemn or forget those who fought in the war - they have nothing to be ashamed of, and their sacrifice deserves to be remembered. Instead, it is the leaders of that era who deserve our condemnation. The politicians, the generals, the monarchs, all those whose cynical greed triggered it, and whose "honour" demanded that they not back down (while demanding - and believing - that the other side would) - all deserve to be reviled. They were not heroes. They did not win a "glorious" victory. Instead, ten million people died for their pride and their stupidity - including the man we buried today in Wellington.