Twice, in the last hundred years, ordinary people from countries around the world were called on to do the extraordinary. Volunteers from citizen democracies, conscripts from authoritarian regimes: all thrown into conflict, pushed to protect their friends from harm.
Some were almost insanely brave, some were scared almost to death. Death, injury and trauma were commonplace. These were ordinary people who would much rather have just got on with living their lives, but they were either forced to go and fight, or chose to do so because of a sense of obligation, or it just seemed the right thing to do. And remembering their plight is also the right thing to do.
My dad’s dad, after helping to get factories up and running after the Coventry Blitz, served in Palestine in World War Two, avoiding front-line conflict with Rommel but facing sporadic terrorism. My mum’s dad was a teenage soldier in the trenches of the Somme in 1916. My dad’s grandad, Sydney Ensor, was 28 when he was killed in July 1918, leaving behind a wife, a young son and a five year old daughter who grew up to be my nan.
What seems missing from this current mass act of remembrance is why they fought and died, why families were devastated. Certainly, British Empire and US involvement in WW1 was not to protect our freedom (such as it was – the only voters in British democracy were male property owners over the age of 21, a paltry 18% of the UK’s population). The reason the British fought was to protect Belgium from a foreign aggressor and to comply with alliances with France and Russia. The UK was clearly under threat in the Second World War from an infinitely more evil enemy although most historians agree that any Nazi invasion would have been suicidally risky and logistically untenable in 1940.
How did the world get into such a mess, not once but twice in the space of a few decades? Basically, a failure to resolve diplomatic disputes sensibly; failures to acknowledge dangerous pressures; and a series of confrontational alliances and nationalistic posturing.
After the horrors of WW1, politicians realised that international cooperation was preferable to industrialised carnage and so established the ill-fated League of Nations. Although it was based on some high ideals, in reality its members were still too focused on self-interest. Those countries that wanted a freer rein to pursue nationalist interests (i.e. aggression and invasion) abandoned the organisation.
In 1945 they tried again with the United Nations; Europe went further, creating the Council of Europe in 1949 and then a series of legally-binding cooperative treaties in the 1950s (the origins of the EU) which are being copied around the world.
Let’s be frank – no organisation is perfect. But flouncing away from meaningful, peaceful cooperation is not big and it’s not clever. The Brexit farce and Trump’s ditching of Climate Accords and nuclear agreements are sending a message that blind self-interest is once more stalking the planet. And once again, it’s not for the benefit of ordinary people, it’s to protect or advance the interests of those in power. The 6-week long invasion phase of the Iraq war, driven by opportunist hawks with eyes on oil, had a horrific aftermath that lasted 8 years.
Wars are not inevitable. When remembering the fallen and their families, remember that they died because politicians fucked up. And if they continue to fuck things up like they have over the past few years we’re going to see more self-interested isolationism, more confrontation, more aggression and more conflict. All of which means we shouldn’t be surprised if more ordinary people end up making the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that isn’t for their benefit.
Earlier this year we visited the WW1 Memorial of Notre Dame de Lorette, just outside Lens. Soldiers killed in northern France, from all armies, are listed in alphabetical order, side by side. Each one an ordinary bloke who didn’t return home to his family.