Until the day she died, my grandmother kept beside her bed a photo of a handsome officer in First World War uniform. It was her brother, known always as ‘Poor Johnny’, who died in the trenches. For seven decades she looked at his picture every night.
On Monday, families throughout the UK will remember relatives who died in that terrible event. Even today, we remember them. And as Britain marks the hundredth anniversary of entering that war, it is the human cost of it that we remember – the uniformed men in grainy photos, the suicidal charges on flickering films, the corpses sprawling in ditches, the wounded, blinded, disfigured survivors struggling through civilian life afterwards.
And yet conflict and its destructive power have not gone away in the century since 1914. Even as I write, the headlines are filled with human loss – in Gaza, in Syria, in Ukraine, in Iraq. Official warfare may have waned with the ending of the Cold War, but today’s world is still at war. We have civil war, guerrilla war, narco-war, resource conflict, terrorism. In many countries we have not the quick and formal war that ends, like 1918, but instead a chronic, recurrent cycle of violence that grips communities and peoples and will not go away. Today, 40 per cent of conflicts restart within ten years of an official peace treaty.
These new kinds of conflict require new kinds of solutions. At Peace Direct we believe those solutions have to involve local people and groups, who are rooted in the communities in conflict. They are on the ground before the trouble escalates. They understand the causes and the combatants. They can mediate and defuse hostile groups, and strengthen communities against violence. These are the kind of local peacebuilders we find in conflict zones worldwide. We believe they are the key to building real peace.
On the night before Britain went to war in August 1914, the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey famously looked through his Foreign Office window and saw a man lighting the gas lamps in St James’s Park below. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,’’ he murmured wearily to a colleague. ”We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’’ He was right, of course. Europe walked blindfold into tragedy. Events slipped out of control. The death and destruction that followed haunted a generation, shaped our modern world and sparked an even wider war in 1939.
There are many lessons to learn from the failures of twentieth-century diplomacy. International efforts to prevent war often did not succeed. The underlying causes of war were seldom addressed. If we wish the next hundred years to be more peaceful and less destructive, we should heed those failures and look for new approaches to building peace.
So on Monday, among the memorials to the failures of the past, perhaps we should think also of different possibilities for the future – and do what we can to make them happen.