This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It was a gruesome conflict in which more than eight million people were killed and almost twice as many were injured. It came to involve nations as far-flung as Canada, Turkey, India and Australia. Whole landscapes on the Western Front were converted into lunar-like stretches of mud, mines and human remains.
Over the next four years thousands will flock to former battlefields and war memorials to commemorate WWI and those who died fighting in it. But an important question is this: why should we bother to commemorate the war at all?
Why remember wars?
One reason to study and commemorate great historical events is that they are interesting – they help us imagine a time foregone, and to situate ourselves in and understand the world today. Historical fascination is no bad thing, but it seems a weak justification for the kind of society-wide commemoration ceremonies and remembrances we’ll see over the next few years. Are there more substantial reasons? In her forthcoming book Cosmopolitan Peace, the Oxford philosopher Cecile Fabre considers whether there are moral reasons to remember wars and their dead.
One possible argument, which Fabre sketches, is that we owe an obligation to commemorate past benefactors, or to recognise past wrongdoing. One problem for this argument is that our relationship with the past becomes more tenuous as the years progress. The extent to which contemporary Germans owe an obligation to be repentant or provide reparations for the Holocaust, for instance, is a vexed question; it is even more difficult when the historical episode is the First World War.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.