One hundred years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, The Great War came to an end. The war killed tens of millions of people. Some thought this would be the war to end war. They were wrong.
A League of Nations was formed. The Kellogg-Briand pact renounced war as an instrument of national policy. But by the 1930s, the world went back to war. With each passing decade, the machinery of death has become more efficient. The war dead of the 20th century are counted in the hundreds of millions.
And still the scourge of war afflicts us. This year 100,000 human beings have been killed in wars in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It might seem like good news to learn that the body count is lower today. But even one death from senseless violence represents a moral failure.
Over the past millennia, scholars have clarified a moral theory known as the “just war theory.” War can be justified when it is fought for a just cause and as a last resort. War should be proportional. Civilians should be spared from harm. Prisoners should be respected. And so on.
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This theory reflects a common-sense view that requires violence to be limited and justified. Its principles are reflected in international law and in various treaties and conventions. But the reality of war defies such abstract moralizing. Ethical judgment is overwhelmed by war fever. Politicians seek advantage. Nations vie for supremacy. Fear, hatred and propaganda overrule reason. And moral scruples are set aside.
Time to reflect
As we commemorate the end of the First World War, we should remember the human folly that produced it. Alliances were made. Animosities were manipulated. Armaments were manufactured. An archduke was murdered. Armies marched. Atrocities mounted. And morality succumbed to the absurdities of war.
In hindsight, it is easy to think that this could have been avoided. But each generation falls victim to what Wilfred Owen called “the old lie” of war and its desperate glories. Owen witnessed horror in the trenches. He wrote poetry about gas and death and the lies of war.
In one of his poems, “The End,” Owen laments the bodies of young men broken by war. They will never be renewed. The empty veins of youth will never be refilled. The voice of mother earth cries out. “My fiery heart sinks, aching,” she says. “Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified; nor my titanic tears the seas be dried.”
Gone so soon
Wilfred Owen was killed in action on Nov. 4, 1918. He was 25 years old. If he had survived another week he would have lived to witness the armistice.
The timing of Owen’s death tells us something of the reality of war. Morality does not explain why some live and some die. The gods of war roll the dice of death. They are indifferent to human hope and suffering.
And human beings strategize ways to maximize destruction. The horrors of the First World War were the result of mechanical and technological power. This was a war of machines and gas, mass mobilization and numerical ruthlessness.
One dark story is told in a recent New Yorker article. On the morning of Nov. 11, there was a mad final spasm of killing. The generals knew the end of the war was coming. But that morning, instead of waiting for peace to arrive, they urged their men up and out of the trenches. There was still glory to be earned on the razor wire and a daily quotient of death to be tallied: 2,700 men killed on the morning of Nov. 11; 8,200 missing or wounded.
And who, we might ask, is to blame for such desolate nonsense? The ancients personified war as a god and a force of nature. But we know better. The blame rests upon our shoulders. War is a human creation. It is a shameful product of human depravity.
In our better moments we seem to understand this. Moral philosophy sheds light. Laws and treaties impose limits. The preachers pray for peace. But outside this small circle of light, the war drums keep pounding. And the earth continues to shed her titanic tears.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala