To start with a personal point: for reasons which are a mixture of fear and disgust, I believe taking human life in any circumstances is a truly awful thing. That’s why I’ve always admired people like the Quakers who refuse to involve themselves in armed conflict of any kind, while other religious denominations find no irony in appointing padres to various regiments. With God on our side blah blah blah.
This point comes to mind because today they’re celebrating/commemorating the Battle of Gallipoli, and yesterday marked the anniversary of the Easter Proclamation. It seems to me that if you believe in violence to achieve political ends – as is the case in any country with a standing army – then it comes in at least three forms.
There’s the violence which achieves its objectives. Under this heading you might classify the struggle against Hitler and Nazism. The goal was to defeat Germany and after a six-year struggle, the Allies were successful. Those who died believing in the need to defeat Nazism died in the interests of a noble cause.
Then there’s violence which doesn’t achieve its objectives in the short term but in the long term does. Under this I’d classify the Easter Rising, which was denounced on many sides when it was crushed, but from the ashes of which grew the independence of the twenty-six counties. Likewise the republican violence of the Troubles: its central aim was to achieve a united Ireland. Republicans failed to do that. But in the longer term they moved out of conflict and built an extraordinarily successful political movement which may well achieve the original goal of a re-united self-governing Ireland.
Finally there’s the violence which is fought in the interests of a lie. Into this category I’d place the Irish Volunteers who, with John Redmond’s blessing, marched into the 1914-18 war and gave their lives for an illusion. Likewise the many Australians and New Zealanders, whose deaths are being commemorated and honoured today: they probably were brave men but they died for…What? So that they could say the Hun had been defeated? So that the Mother country could acclaim their loyalty? Like the millions who died in that war, their lives were sacrificed for nothing. Which makes the pretext that they died in a noble cause an insult to their brave memory.