The First World War is very much in the news these days. Over the last week the papers have carried stories and comment over how we should commemorate next year’s centenary of a war we hoped would end wars. An article in the Sunday Times reminds us that there is no clear agreement on exactly how it started and what it meant. What we do know is that the war claimed some 16 million lives ,devastating the lives, dreams and aspirations of countless others, and that it ended with something of a controversial peace treaty that provided some with a warped rationale for renewed conflict some 20 years later.
It is right and proper that in the commemoration we remember with gratitude, the courage and sacrifice of British and allied soldiers including volunteers from the Commonwealth and subcontinent. Few know for example, that 83,000 Sikhs lost their lives in the two world wars. However, in the commemoration it’s also important that we look to the lessons of the past in trying to prevent future conflicts.
Looking from the perspective of time, it seems that that the 14-18 war had much to do with strategic interest, with one side seeking to extend theirs and the other to defend the status quo. As a concept, defending one’s strategic interests seems fine. The trouble is that such interests are not mutually exclusive, and often conflicting, at a time when more and more countries are flexing their economic and military muscles.
The famous scientist Albert Einstein was typically blunt in his view of strategic interest or nationalism, calling it ‘an infantile disease, like measles’. We know that he had good reason to fear rampant nationalism, but his blunt words have relevance today as we look at continuing conflicts around us. We have marvellous international bodies like the UN and the Security Council designed to reduce conflict but all too often see so-called ‘strategic interests’ of member states preventing necessary action.
Guru Ramdass the 4th Guru was similarly concerned. He wrote:
All powers men make pacts with
Are subject to death and decay
False are all factions that divide men into warring groups.
The Gurus taught that focussing on social justice and human rights is the best way of ensuring lasting peace. Something we should reflect on in next year’s commemorations.