One hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany, in what was soon labelled as the war to end all wars. The scale of death so shocked people of the time that they all imagined no one would ever do anything like it again. We had established, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that war is a miserable and futile thing, with unspeakable costs, and that you can spend years killing people in their thousands and make no meaningful political changes.
If we had any sense as a species, that would have been it, and we’d never have had a war since. A hundred years on, and we’re still in the habit of killing each other in horrible ways that ultimately change very little outside of the personal tragedies. Why? Because there is always someone who thinks violence will get them what they want. Fear of the aggressor means that nations who would like to view themselves as non-aggressive have to keep weapons and armies to protect themselves, right through to protecting themselves with pre-emptive strikes. There are people in the weapons trade who make a fortune out of war, and if you’re a politician with an eye to history book posterity, war remains tempting. This is in turn because we so often write our histories as the history of warfare and commanders.
If words like ‘glorious’ and ‘heroic’ are associated with killing people, the whole thing is a lot more attractive. A glance at the WW1 poets will show you a bunch of young men who had been told how noble and good it was to lay down your life for your country, not how awful it was watching a friend slowly choke to death on gas. What would our attitude to war be like if we taught more social history? What if we taught the history of science more, or the history of democracy? There are some very interesting and informative histories out there and if you study history until the age of 14, you’ll barely know they exist. You will know a fair bit about the two world wars. You’ll probably know Norman conquest and Saxon raiders, a few kings and queens, a few other big, important fights. If you’re American, you’d expect to know all about the war of independence and the civil war. Our histories are so often the histories of violence, as though only this past exists and is available to talk about.
It would be lovely if all the people in power figured out how to never start another war. I won’t hold my breath. We’d have to give up on greed, on bids to control resources, religious hatred, cultural imperialism, and fear of each other. We’re a long ways from doing those things. Many of us live in societies that make token gestures at being democratic. In theory, the will of the people means something. The culture a leader thinks they come from certainly has an influence. Financial pressure talks.
We are not going to get world peace by waiting around for the power hungry, greed driven idiots who grab power to play nicely. It’s going to have to come from a grass roots, from a culture that does not love and romanticise violence through its films, does not hero-worship killers and tell proud stories of the slaughter in its history. A culture that sees violence as failure will be a lot less inclined to get into wars. A culture that does not see leadership potential in swaggering bully boys who want to play at soldiers (either gender, with all due reference to Margaret Thatcher). Right wing politics is riddled with the language of macho violence even when it’s not planning to kill anyone directly. It’s all wars on things, fights, tough choices, it’s the language of conquest and victory. What we need is culture of co-operation that has good relationships with other cultures rather than living in fear of them.
We’re a very long way from there, one hundred years after the war to end all wars didn’t. That doesn’t make it impossible, or any less worth trying for. Until we change the culture of leadership, it isn’t going to come from those who lead.