How to truly honour the war dead

Yesterday I read of a celebrity campaign to encourage “young people” to observe the two-minute silence on Armistice Day. It involved posters with celebrities holding poppies in their mouths, as if to say “be silent”.

But silence-observing and poppy-buying adults do a far greater disservice to the war dead than they think innocent youngsters do. 

They do it by continuing to believe that an Authority can plan, control and improve society – and thus should plan and control it. Today it’s the State, the Majority, the Greater Good, but in the past it was Gods, Pharaohs, Emperors, Queens and Kings.

Every soul of the millions snuffed out in the world wars died because of this same belief in an Authority. We honour the dead by abandoning forever the belief that an Authority must control our lives in order for peace and prosperity to flourish. We should all make this vow when we bow our heads in silence.

That means turning our backs on politicians; on those who claim they will solve all manner of social problems using government force, as if it’s some kind of magic wand. It means refusing to give our moral sanction to men who say they can make us better off, if only we give them more control of our property, of currency, of trade, of banking et al; to those who claim we must sacrifice liberty to have security. We must stop handing control of our lives to Authority. Peace and prosperity lies only in the hearts and hands of individuals. No Authority can command it.

Here’s a quote from Harry Patch, one of the last World War I veterans to die.

“I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.”

He’s right, of course. Individuals who want to use violence should face the consequences themselves. But that was never going to happen. 

The British people believed that their welfare and the glory of the nation was the responsibility of politicians; it was the responsibility of the State – and ultimately of the King. For he was appointed by God.

Responsibility must be control or it’s nothing. And so this belief justified conscription of individuals into the army by the State. It justified the sending of millions of young men to their deaths, each one a bullet from the King’s rifle.

No human being with a conscience wants to murder innocent people. Harry Patch didn’t want to go to war, of course he didn’t, but it made perfect sense for him to obey his Authority. After all, the Authority knew what was best for him and for everyone else. It would have seemed foolish to disobey. Not to mention traitorous.

I suspect that only after the horrors of World War I did Harry Patch and others realise that the opposite was true. (They were lucky to be alive to do so). Brutal experience had shown that believing an Authority was responsible for every Briton’s welfare and thus should have the power to control them by force had the most horrific consequences. Millions dead. Widespread impoverishment. Society on its knees.

It must have shaken Harry and his fellow survivors to their core like so many German bombs and the sight of their lifeless cohorts scattered across fields had done. Their souls would never be the same again. Haunted and scarred by the atrocities they had seen and the horrors they had committed.

The effects had been the same everywhere else that a people had believed the same thing of an Authority. Death, destruction, misery.

Voltaire said “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” He was right. Millions died before they could realise this. Those who survived couldn’t help but realise it. 

Believing that an Authority can control millions of individuals in a society and produce lasting peace and prosperity is absurd. Only individuals acting freely and engaging in economic exchange create wealth. Only societies that protect individual freedom can remain peaceful. Lest we forget.

We best honour the war dead by holding this truth close to our hearts.

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