You don’t need me to remind you that this year, and especially this past weekend, the world commemorated – celebrated is hardly the right word – the Armistice marking the cessation of hostilities in the Great War.
One of the major themes that struck me in recent days was the reference to servicemen who paid the ultimate price in the days and even hours before the guns fell silent. One of those was Wilfred Owen, whose poem± even the most casual student of English literature will recognise from the title of this article.
Much has been written, not least by Owen and other war poets, about the futility of war, but this blog usually has a financial theme, and from that point of view, perhaps war isn’t always quite so pointless and wasteful.
Margaret McMillan, Professor of International History at Oxford, and the 2018 BBC Reith lecturer, argues that perhaps war is part of the human condition – the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15) – and that while the cost in human suffering is horrendous, war has often been an accelerant, a catalyst, and sometimes an outright cause of progress.
Sometimes this is obvious: the development of the aeroplane itself, plus lots of associated technologies such as radar, the jet engine, and rocketry being examples. Perhaps less well known is that, although antibiotics had been discovered in 1928, it was not until the start of WW2 that serious attention was given to large-scale production, to combat wound infection and venereal disease among Allied troops. Although some people thought it should be a military secret, the findings of the researchers Howard Florey & Ernst Chain were published in a medical journal for all to read, with massive benefits for all mankind.
These are just a couple of examples among many, but there is more to it than science and technology. War has also resulted in sweeping social improvements. For example, it is well documented that women’s suffrage was introduced as a direct result of the Great War; and it was agreed by all parties during WW2 that, no matter which party was in power after the war, things would have to change and the welfare state and the NHS were the tangible outcome. Much longer ago, it could be argued that the Hundred Years War (in concert with the Black Death, which it no doubt helped to spread) hastened the end of feudalism and the normalisation of free men being paid a wage for their labour.
If you want direct financial examples, World War Two is generally credited with ending the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. The financial bond market rose to prominence as a means of financing the Napoleonic wars, which also saw the introduction of Income Tax as a temporary measure.
Of course, there are also huge negative consequences, even at the scientific level. Think of Robert Oppenheimer’s horror at his own work on the atomic bomb, reflecting, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. But even then, without the apocalyptic results of the Manhattan Prohect, we would not now have nuclear power, as one of the clean alternatives to fossil fuels.
No matter what progress is achieved, is it worth it?
Philosophers can, and do, argue the toss about it, at the level of society as a whole, or even humankind as a species. But try having that discussion with the family of Private E Woods, whose body lies in St Patrick’s churchyard in Newry. I know absolutely nothing about him except that he died on November 10th, 1918, one day – just one day! – before the Armistice.
Forget about the big picture, and the grand sweep of history. War happens one bullet at a time, one death at a time, one family at a time, and at that level it is very pointless indeed, especially when those families see it happening, in the words of my favourite anti-war song, “again, and again, and again, and again”†.
We will remember them.
± Wilfred Owen, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, drafted 1917, published posthumously 1920
† Eric Bogle, Green Fields of France, 1976