We used to call it the Great War, but in the sense of glory or accomplishment, there is nothing “great” about it. Ghastly would be a better term. Several years ago I read a substantial history of it, and I’m convinced that the period 1914-18 was nothing less than an experience of utter evil under the guise of near-total incompetence. Generals/aristocrats sent soldiers/commoners to their deaths by the hundreds of thousands because they failed to graduate from cavalry and rifle warcraft. And it wouldn’t have been much better if the western aristocracy had trained for stone knives and flint arrowheads for all the good it did brave men at Gallipoli and other places. And for what? All it did was usher in a generation of bitterness followed by an even worse hemorrhage of violence two decades later.
Liam sent me a link to Adam Hochschild’s essay on the antiwar movement in Britain. A comparison with our own day:
Unlike, for example, American opponents of our wars in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, or Afghanistan, the Britons who opposed this war had no major newspapers and only a tiny handful of legislators on their side. For someone in a prominent position to advocate any compromise was considered close to treason. When Rev. Edward Lyttelton, the headmaster of Eton, proposed some possible peace terms, the resulting uproar forced him to resign. From Parliament to pulpit, ferocity reigned. “Kill Germans! Kill them!” raged one clergyman in a 1915 sermon, “ . . . not for the sake of killing, but to save the world. . . . Kill the good as well as the bad. . . . Kill the young men as well as the old. . . . I look upon it as a war for purity. I look upon everybody who dies in it as a martyr.” The speaker was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican Bishop of London.
If I gave you all but the first two words of the Winnington-Ingram quote for you, would you be quicker to attribute it to a Nazi than to an Anglican bishop?
Recruiting posters appealed to shame: one showed two children asking a frowning, guilty-looking father in civilian clothes, “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” (Keir Hardie’s friend Bob Smillie, leader of the Scottish mineworkers, said his reply would be: “I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.”)
If the Church had come to terms with the corruption and incompetence in European aristrocracy in the early part of the twentieth century, and sided with the cause of peace, I would suggest the Gospel would have a far greater appeal, especially in Europe, than it does today. The strength of the Church would be enhanced by emphasizing those who resisted military service in a holy and heroic way–people like Ben Salmon.
This strength is needed still today. With Iraq we received the worst of both worlds: an immoral war, conducted with criminal incompetence. We should stand with others around the world to ensure that if we find ourselves unable to stop future violence, that we will resist it with all that is holy that is within our grasp. And expose war advocates as misguided and duped.
One thing that struck me in this essay was how authorities were scared of pacifists. The reality is no less true today.