News Editorial

Friday 19 September 2014

Never again such innocence

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

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Members of the Great War Society living history group dressed as 4th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment wait to take part in a World War One centenary ceremony at the Tank Museum, Bovington. Photo: Getty Images
Members of the Great War Society living history group dressed as 4th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment wait to take part in a World War One centenary ceremony at the Tank Museum, Bovington. Photo: Getty Images

The unsuspecting manner in which a continent sleepwalked into tragedy a century ago is best captured by Philip Larkin's elegiac verdict of, ''Never such innocence, Never before or since... Without a word - the men, Leaving the gardens tidy, The thousands of marriage, Lasting a little while longer: Never such innocence again''. There would certainly never again be such innocence. But, our incapacity, or absence of desire, to learn from history meant there would be more and more still of butchery and war. The importance of remembrance in at least ensuring that all future wars might be entered into with eyes wide open means it is for the better that Ireland's shivering silence on the Great War has been broken. Outside of the virtues of simple respect for those who experienced that which we will hopefully never know, lessons from history, particularly when a century has passed, are too easily forgotten. Indeed, in our case, such Greek tragedies as Jean McConville can be shrouded by amnesia far more speedily. The true virtue of remembrance and history, as Sinn Fein knows all too well, is that it is the great factotum of truth which will never allow that party glide to power on a magic carpet of amnesia.

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In 1914 a continent that, since the end of the Napoleonic era, had forgotten the horrors of wide-scale war was too casual about the virtues of peaceful diplomacy. It would be good to expect such a vast error could never be repeated. The answer, alas, to that is equivocal, for the world is living under darkening skies. America, which has been the guarantor of peace for so long has - after shedding so much blood and treasure on the sands of the Middle East - begun to retreat into isolationism. The West, which has discarded all notions of martial vigour in a manner eerily similar to the build up to 1939, is looking nervously in the direction of Mr Putin, who is the new Russian Tsar in all but name. The theatre of conflict has moved from the Balkans to the Ukraine. But, though the boundaries are more distant than Serbia, the instability is of a similar character to that which caused such horror in the wake of the shooting of an utterly insignificant Archduke in 1914.

Mr Putin, whose erratic disregard for international law bears a closer resemblance to a Kaiser than a Tsar, is not the only problem the West must face. Ancestral voices prophesying war are becoming increasingly imperious in a Middle East which is experiencing its most destabilizing period since the implosion of the Ottomans. In Gaza the lessons taught that one heedless death, let alone a thousand, can poison the wells of diplomacy for a century have been heedlessly ignored by Hamas and an Israeli state which has an affection for the stick that does more harm to itself than its enemies.

In 1914 a little local dispute eventually saw millions of innocents being marched to their deaths by a political system that, then as now, was utterly casual about the rights of their own citizens. Sentiment should not divert our attention from the shame our then Captains and Kings - including, in Ireland's case, Mr Redmond - should bear for blithely consigning a guileless citizenry to that colossal murderous hell-hole of mismanaged butchery.

In a country where history is a still bitterly-contested field, it would not just be an insult to those whose eyes were stilled in the mud of Flanders and whose lips were silenced beside the poppies of the Somme, to forget the wretched futility of war. It would also be, given the ongoing bellow of 'ancestral voices', an act of vast stupidity.

Sunday Independent

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