This month marks the centenary of the First World War, a stupendously senseless conflict that claimed the lives of 16 million soldiers and civilians, left another 20 million grievously wounded, and uprooted tens of millions more. Inevitably, commemorations of the war will be tinged by nostalgia and not a little historical amnesia, with a focus on the courage of the men who fought the war, and the triumph of Allied Forces fighting, almost in retrospect, for freedom and liberal values, obscuring the fact that in reality, the war was triggered by the tragic miscalculations of unceasingly competitive leaders who did not realize what the consequences of their actions would be. For all their gallantry and heroism, the ‘Lost Generation’ of young men who fought and died across Europe did not do so for any great principle or ideal; they were simply sent to be butchered by a ruling elite that was primarily concerned with its own vainglorious pursuit of power. At the battles of Verdun and the Somme, which collectively claimed the lives of over two million British, Commonwealth, French, and German soldiers, hundreds of thousands of men were ordered to hurl themselves against deeply entrenched fortifications, dying in their multitudes as they scrabbled in the mud for mere inches of land. The young paid the price for the transgressions of the old and when the dust finally settled over a ravaged Europe in 1918, the conclusion of the ‘war to end all wars’ was accompanied by a pledge that such a conflict would never again be allowed to take place.
This, of course, was wishful thinking. Two decades later, the Second World War unleashed death and suffering on an unprecedented scale, and the flames in Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki has barely been put out before a fresh round of conflict erupted in the context of the Cold War. Millions more died in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, and Afghanistan, to name just a few. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than bringing about the ‘End of History’ and the triumph of Western liberal democracy and capitalism, triggered yet more conflict, with resurgent ethnic and religious identities intersecting with the unbridled assertion of American economic and military interests to foster conflagrations across the world.
In the past week, images coming out of Gaza have served to underscore the wanton brutality of Israel’s latest onslaught against the people of Palestine. When seeing the faces of dead children, the horrific wounds of innocent civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and lives reduced to rubble by the indiscriminate bombardment of houses, schools, and hospitals, it is difficult to remain unmoved by the sheer injustice of it all. Elsewhere in the world, the callous disregard for human life becomes even more apparent. In Syria and Iraq, the relentless march of ISIL and battles between different government and opposition factions continue to inflict death and misery upon thousands of unfortunates lacking the means to escape the conflict. The same is true of Libya which, like Iraq, is now witnessing the bloody after-effects of an ill-conceived Western intervention that created far more problems than it ostensibly solved. In Ukraine, two weeks after the shooting down of flight MH17 and the deaths of 298 people, many of whom were children, the violence shows no signs of abating. Closer to home, the hundreds of thousands displaced by the military operation in FATA remain stuck in a state of limbo, struggling to live their lives in extremely harsh conditions amidst an enduring uncertainty about their future.
To read the news everyday is to experience unending lamentation, with the funeral dirges of the dead giving testament to humankind’s tremendous capacity for cruelty. As leaders and armies battle over territory and wealth, justifying their transgressions with appeals to higher powers and ideologies, the cost is inevitably borne by ordinary people whose lives clearly count for little in the grand scheme of things. Despite all that has changed over the past century, it is clear that violence and war remain an integral and unfortunate part of our world. The use of phrases like ‘surgical strikes’, ‘humanitarian intervention’, and ‘targeted operations’ does little to mask the capricious, casual brutality that is inherent to any military conflict.
The great irony here is that, unlike the past, it could be reasonably argued that the world now possesses the capacity and the means through which to address the distributional conflicts that often fuel warfare. Through the institutions of the nation-state, the technological innovations of the past six decades, and the spread of democratic politics, it is eminently possible to effectively eliminate poverty, hunger, disease, and other forms of deprivation around the world. That this has not happened can arguably be attributed to the persistence of a political and economic system geared towards maintaining the power and privilege of a small oligopolistic elite, as well as the interests of individuals and corporations guided almost entirely by the relentless pursuit of profit at any cost. As battles continue to be fought over land, natural resources, and the opportunity to do business in the name of ‘reconstruction’, it is clear that God and country have little to do with warfare, and that the interests of the many are, as always, secondary to the interests of the few. When leaders from around the world meet in Belgium over the next few months and look upon the rows of graves memorializing the dead from the First World War, they would do well to reflect on their collective complicity in failing to make the world a better and more peaceful place.

n    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.