IS war ever justified?

A strange question you might think. And as the shells rain down on the children of Gaza, a somewhat current one.

Certainly Israel, on the whole, appears to believe that its war on the people of that small but heavily populated enclave is justified to stop the rockets being fired into its towns and villages by Hamas.

Next week there will no doubt be a great deal of questioning of whether this country should have gone to war 100 years ago against the Kaiser’s Germany.

With one million dead from Britain and its empire, many more millions lost to other combatant nations, and the fifty million that died in the 1939-45 conflict that followed as a direct result, should we, could we have stood aside?

Yes, goes the argument from some notable historians, France and Russia would have gone to defeat quite quickly, perhaps within less than a year, Germany would have won and demanded its rewards, but the world would have settled down quite quickly to a new order.

Even if Europe would have then been dominated by an economically powerful German state this would have only been something like an early European Union, those who say we should have ignored our treaty to defend Belgium argue.

A nice theory, but fantasy I’m afraid.

For one thing Germany under the Kaiser and his military council is a far cry from today’s democratic, disarmed German state. True, more men in Germany had the vote than in Britain in 1914, but the German parliament was toothless and had no say in affairs of state, much less war.

The theory also neatly sidesteps what would most likely have happened in the 100-years between an easy German victory and today. Those who imagine a century of Edwardian gentility leading calmly to today’s European cluster of friendly nations are setting aside historical realities.

There is no reason to believe that short, sharp war would have been the end to conflict in Europe and beyond. Germany’s war aims in 1914 are well-known. It sought control over the industrial heart of France, Belgium and Eastern Europe including parts of Poland and Russia, as well as use of the French Channel ports.

It also sought a greater empire, most of which it would probably have taken from a defeated France.

At the start of the Great War Germany’s economy had overtaken Britain’s as well as its industrial might. Its army was far and away stronger than our own. Only the Royal Navy kept the Germans at bay. Within a few years of a 1915 victory, fed by an ever greater industrial economy, the German fleet would have been far stronger than our own.

Do we really believe that such a military power would not eventually seek conflict with the only rival in the world? There is little doubt that within a decade or so Britain and Germany would have been at war, but this time the situation would have been much worse. With the Royal Navy unable to keep the German army from our shores and no Allies left to call on, the Kaiser’s troops would have been in London quite quickly. The UK would have gone down to defeat.

There will be some who, quite understandably, say that losing quickly and again saving millions of lives would have been worth it. But while I do not hold to the theory that if Germany had won either of the wars waged against us last century we would all now be speaking German, I cannot agree that freedom is not worth the price of the sacrifices made by those who fought in both world wars.

This is not to say the sacrifices of so many lives created a perfect world. Certainly we still grapple today with the remains of that conflict. The world was shaped by the 20th century’s wars. The map of the Middle East was drawn by Britain and France following the Great War. Gaza is a direct consequence then of that conflict.

If Britain had stepped aside 100 years ago this Monday, reneged on its treaty to defend Belgium, stayed behind its formidable steel walls of the Royal Navy, and refused to defend democracy, with luck the world might have evolved in a peaceful manner towards a common future. Most likely the day of reckoning would have merely been postponed, with fateful consequences for the liberties we held dear then and still enjoy today.