In Scotland the arrival of a new year is a time to reflect on the previous year’s events and look forward to the new. To throw off the cares and woes of the old year and with renewed hope embrace the future; to learn the lessons of the past, to rethink our priorities and vow to do things differently.
“Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”, is a paraphrase from many sources; Google it and you will find dozens of variations and many different authors, but the sentiment is the same. Understanding the follies of the past is a good guide to making decisions for the future.
2014 in particular gave us an opportunity to look even further back and look back we did. November saw the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War; the War to End All Wars, now there’s a misnomer if there ever was one. Nearly a million died, the map of the world was redesigned, and the seed laid for the Second World War. It is impossible 100 years later for me look back at these times and not despair. Both my Grandfathers fought in W W 1 and what they would have made of this commemoration I do not know; perhaps they would have been proud or perhaps they would weep. More likely both.
George Santayana the philosopher wrote “The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.” The commemorations of WW1 looked at times to be just that; a caricature. Accompanied by funereal music, cameras passed slowly over the lines of white crosses marking the burial places of soldiers most of whom had no idea why they died. TV presenters intoned in slow sonorous voices a commentary on the laying of wreaths by the great and the good.
Festooned in gold braid present day admirals, generals and air vice marshals saluted the fallen. I have no doubt of their sincerity, or of their belief that the sacrifices of these dead were justified and honourable. The poet Wilfred Owen called it the old lie, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, roughly translated as “It is sweet and right to die for your country”. Wilfred Owen died a week before the end of World War One. And to quote George Santayana again, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
It seems we have learned very little in the intervening century.