'Wars are much like road accidents. They have a general and a particular cause at the same time. Every road accident in the last resort is caused by the invention of the internal combustion engine....The police and the courts do not weigh profound causes. They seek a specific cause for each accident - driver's error, excessive speed, drunkenness, faulty brakes, bad road surface. So it is with wars.' (historian A J P Taylor)
A fair analogy? It's true that wars have more than one cause, with their roots in place long before the first shot. It's true that there would be no war if the machinery for it hadn't been invented, or if there had been no inventors or warmongers to pay them. It's true that, too often, the short-term causes that lead to war are assessed, rather than the conditions that created them: it's easier to dish out blame and retribution that way. Yes, it's a neat comparison.
Too neat. It's dangerous - irresponsible - to think of war as a happening beyond control. If you must compare war to a vehicle, then choose the tank: designed by human beings to kill and devastate efficiently. A tank driver's error is to fail in that, though no-one arrests him for failure except possibly the people he meant to target. Or death.
It's a fatal error to leave out the human element when thinking about war. It is human beings who invented war, run it, wage it. Every decision in war, from entering it to sorting the mess out afterwards, is made by individual human beings, sometimes on their own, sometimes by default. Those who influence them have a choice, too. The use of war is never compulsory, whatever reasons people may come up with to persuade you that it is.
So it's vital to be aware of the chain of human responsibility, and where each one of us is on it. The four poems that follow suggest some starting points.
The first, 'The hand that signed the paper', looks at the corrupting power of leaders. Such leaders include not just brutal dictators, but also those whose stated principles are humane.The second poem, 'The Castle', is perhaps more complicated than it looks. The army and its castle could stand for any individual fighter, who always runs the risk of being defeated by a trick. The third poem, 'The Responsibility', goes straight to the human point - but is also aware of the issue of the weapons system itself: someone is responsible for that too, and its existence changes the nature of a society even when it isn't in use.
The last poem ('The Voice of Authority: a language game') is about more than language and concerns more than a game. When you've read it, and perhaps given a thought to the questions that follow it, ask yourself another: who or what is the O'Grady in your life?
- being accountable for your actions
- being trustworthy
- deserving credit for something
- deserving blame for something
- standing on your own
Whatever their circumstances, all human beings are called to fulfil at least one of those definitions, and often.
What has poetry to do with issues like these? If nothing else, poems can alert us to essential truths that we may have forgotten or find easy to ignore. As for the poets - they take responsibility for their poems: they are sent out under the poets' names. In a different way, the choices each of us makes, whether to act or do nothing, have our names on them. Like a stone thrown in a pond, what we do (including writing poetry or working for peace) spreads out ripples that affect other people, influence other events
the first world war
the second world war
crimes against humanity
the nuclear age
The hand that signed the paper GO
The Castle GO
The Responsibility GO
The Voice of Authority GO