In the recent media coverage of the bravery of those killed on the battlefields of WW1, I was particularly moved by a piece in the Times by Daniel Finkelstein about the courage of both his paternal and maternal grandfathers. Both regarded themselves as intensely patriotic and both were decorated for their heroism. However, they were on the German side of the conflict. Courage can be found in both friend and foe, and patriotism is entirely subjective.
While it is right and proper to honour the memory of those who gave their lives for their country, we will never learn from history if we fail to reflect on its lessons. This thought was in the mind of the Queen’s grandfather, King George V as he looked on rows and rows of endless graves in Flanders and commented that ‘we will have failed to honour the memories of those who gave their all, if we allow such slaughter to ever occur again’ Later generations, with the advantage of hindsight, need to ask, questions like did the war advance the cause of peace and social justice in Europe or elsewhere? And did the punitive reparations demanded of Germany in any way contribute to the rise of Adolf Hitler?
Today, with the publication of the long delayed Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 war in Iraq there will also be similar questions and inevitable recriminations. What is beyond dispute, is that the long suffering people of Iraq are – as we saw in the weekend terrorist outrage in a shopping Mall in Bagdad and the death of many innocent people – still far from hoped for peace and true democracy.
I was recently invited to the formal unveiling of a beautifully illustrated short prayer included in prayers said before the start of formal proceedings in the Lords. It reminds Parliamentarians, of a responsibility to put ‘all selfish interests and partial affections’ to one side in all our deliberations. It is remarkably similar to the Sikh daily prayer the Ardas, that concludes Sikh services in gurdwaras, and closes with the words ‘sarbat ka bhala’ – a pledge to work for the greater good of all. Such sentiments should be central to all debate and political decision making, in helping us to reflect objectively on the past, and work together towards a better future.