We have been marking the Remembrance Week with ceremonies, meetings, speeches and hymns as part of our annual ritual of paying respects for those who gave their lives in defense of the values cherished by our society.
And as usual, much reference has been made to the sacrifices made by the fighting man to protect our freedoms. But as we go on marking Remembrance in our now almost routine practice, shouldn’t one think of reconsidering some of the stereotypes that appear to have built in our thinking of the history?
This year’s Remembrance commemorations coincided with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, which was sparked off by the assassination of crown prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. And to be strictly objective, while the Second World War was exactly about freedom and democracy, the First World War was a conflict between two alliances led by colonial powers, Great Britain and Germany, and it had less to do with freedoms than with the greedy expansionist policies of the countries involved in their respective camps.
And when it comes to thinking of history, there is more than just the past we need to ponder on.
From politicians like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to internationally renowned Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, from the respected weekly The Economist to Canada’s widely read daily Globe and Mail, many individuals and media outlets have been pointing to the fact that there are discomforting similarities between the current state of international affairs and the period just before the start of the first global military conflict.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Euro-centered world was plunged into a massive military campaign by the two leading economies of the continent; now in a more globalized world, the US is leading countries with free enterprise economies while China and Russia are challenging the west’s claim to control world’s most important resources which fuel economic growth and prosperity.
Another dangerous parallel between 1914 and 2014 is the “irrational exuberance”, to use the phrase once coined by former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, dominating the financial markets. Just before the start of the war in 1914, most stock markets in the western world were in a similar high-flying mode and the urge for more and more profits are believed to have encouraged expansionist policies which led to the conflict.
One of the wisest men alive, Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu makes a fascinating observation. He once told an interviewer: “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history.”
In order to learn from history, we have a responsibility to teach our young to remember not only the sacrifices made, but also the circumstances that led to the requirement for those sacrifices to be made. To make sure that history does not repeat itself, we have a responsibility to be informed, analytical and inquisitive about what politicians are doing with our support and with our taxes now that we have a lot more ways and means than a 100 years ago to hold our leaders to account.
The world is at a boiling point with many regional wars in addition to territorial and/or political conflicts that have the potential to burst to full-scale military engagement in various parts of the world. The competition to control resources, including fresh water, oil, minerals and land may transform to wars in various parts of the world and the threshold on that transformation may not be that high. It might be useful to think on these circumstances during the Remembrance Week.