In the UK, Remembrance Sunday is a significant event to honour those who died during the world wars. This year is of special significance because it marks 100 years since the armistice ending the First World War.
When I was young, our school went on a trip to Belgium to visit former battlefields and cemeteries. The most striking thing was the realisation that easily I could have been born 100 years earlier and faced the prospect of going to war. I have always been grateful for being born in a time of peace and not have to face the challenges of that generation.
Once, I watched a long documentary about the First World War. One striking thing was in the first episode. They interviewed Bertrand Russell (a famous pacifist who was later sent to jail for later campaigning against the war) Russell noted that when war was declared he couldn’t help but notice and feel a wave of enthusiasm for the war sweep the whole nation – like an external force. He was shocked to be aware of and feel this enthusiasm in the air, even though his whole nature was personally against war. Perhaps the war was the unstoppable culmination from many years of inner aggression and striving for supremacy amongst the powerful nations.
Often I have thought – how would I respond if I was a young male in 1914? The over-riding feeling is gratitude I don’t have to make a choice. I am not a pacifist – there are times when it is necessary to fight – but also I do not believe you should fight simply out of patriotism or because your government tells you to.
I have never fully understood why in the Mahabharata great souls fought for the Kauravas – even though they knew the Kauravas represented darkness and the wrong forces. It seems the idea of conscientious objectors had not been born. People talk of dharma and moral duty, but is not the highest dharma to refuse to fight if you feel the cause is wrong? We praise the heroism of soldiers, but what about the heroism of those who refuse to fight in a wrong cause?
Regarding the First World War, Sri Aurobindo (an Indian nationalist leader who earlier had been seeking to free India from British Rule) – said:
“It was so difficult to have sympathy with either side. But it would have been a great disaster if Germany had won.” Purani, 156–7
If I had been born in Britain, there was a justification to fight because of the German invasion of Belgium and France. With a heavy heart, I would have joined up – even though I would have no pretence – the British were, at the very least, inconsistent in their application of democratic principles. The problem is that while there was a justification to the defence of France, trench warfare was a living hell. By 1917, many soldiers were increasingly disillusioned by a war that had got stuck in unending stalemate – with thousands of casualties for seemingly no point. It is possible to have sympathy both with the futility of war and the reasons why it started.
To complicate matters, it is one thing to fight in Belgium. But, it would have been a moral dilemma if I been posted as a member of the British army to India, Ireland or Palestine.
The one illumining development of the First World War – was the vision of President Woodrow Wilson and his idealistic ‘Fourteen Points’. This included the formation of a new “League of Nations.”
Amongst ordinary people in Europe, there was a tremendous enthusiasm for seeing Woodrow Wilson and this idealistic leader from the new world of America. On his European tour, he was surrounded by huge crowds who wished to gain a glimpse of the famous Wilson. Alas, his idealism was rejected by more narrow-minded political concerns and desire for retribution. His vision struggled to be born into reality.
As a great lover of the United Nations, Sri Chinmoy always valued Wilson’s initial vision of the League of Nations as being the precursor to the United Nations.
“There was a time when Heaven’s Vision was not manifested as reality. We called it the League of Nations. But then the League of Nations was transformed into reality, and became the United Nations.” Sri Chinmoy, The tears of nation-hearts
It was unfortunate, that many political leaders were unreceptive to Wilson’s noble vision.
Sri Aurobindo reflected on the lost opportunity of the First World War.
“If, indeed, developments had occurred before the end of this world-wide struggle strong enough to change the general mind of Europe, to force the dwarfish thoughts of its rulers into greater depths and generate a more wide-reaching sense of the necessity for radical change than has yet been developed, more might have been hoped for;”
Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 14
At the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the great economist John Maynard Keynes resigned in protest at the harsh reparations the Allies imposed on Germany. He predicted it would cause economic ruin and a resurgence in German nationalism. The pugnacious French General Ferdinand Foch, on seeing the treaty wrote – “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.”
Though perhaps this lesson was learnt in 1945 when America and the Allies flooded the defeated nation Germany with humanitarian aid.
Peace is not the absence of war
“Peace does not mean the absence of war.
Peace means the presence of harmony,
Love, oneness and satisfaction.
Peace means a flood of love
In the world-family.”
Sri Chinmoy, A heart of peace
This momentous utterance captures a new way of looking at and valuing peace. The only lasting peace is when we can see our fellow man and neighbouring countries – not as rivals – but as members of the same world family. If we have the inner peace and love towards our fellow man, we cannot have a situation of outer war.
Personal notes on remembrance
I take this 100th anniversary of the First World War in the spirit of trying to make a greater contribution to a peaceful world.
I do not feel a particular inclination towards wearing outer symbols. The really important thing is the inner attitude. But, remembering those who died in battle can be a meaningful and powerful act. However, the act of remembrance should be infused with a spirit of forgiveness and determination to create a new world of peace. The most poignant aspect of the First World War is that many of the soldiers who died were told they were ‘fighting a war to end all wars.’ This has not happened yet. But we can see the remembrance of the ending of the First World War in this spirit to create a peaceful world.