Over recent weeks anyone could choose from a litany of commemorative First World War documentaries to better understand how that catastrophe unfolded, to remember and learn from that war’s enduring legacy.
One piece was more sobering, more shuddering than the other but Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, in which he adjusted the speed of film shot a century ago and coloured it to make it speak all the louder in today’s world, was exceptional. It had a real moral force.
It left no room for the glorification of conflict; it left no room for defending the meat-grinder destruction of millions of people. Like all great war films or novels, like the great majority of humanity, it was profoundly anti-war. Yet despite that and all the carnage since, war remains a constant presence and a permanent probability. The only question seems to be where or when the next catastrophe will unfold.
It may be, or let us pray it is, an overreach to compare Gavrilo Princip’s June, 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the catalyst for the First World War, with the escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia. However, the template is sadly familiar, as is the choreography that inevitably paints a protagonist into a corner where the options are as unattractive as they are limited.
Historians know this script. That the conflict has moved to the Sea of Azov echoes the escalation of the tensions that almost always preceded Europe’s cataclysms. That Russia is preparing to bring charges against the Ukrainian sailors it captured on Sunday, despite protests from Kiev that they should be treated as prisoners of war, can only add fuel to an explosive situation.
This is another example of a powerful neighbour treating a weaker one with contempt. Inevitably, the weaker one reacts forcefully, hoping allies will come to its aid, diplomatically, economically, and, if needed militarily.
That must seem a forlorn hope, especially as Ukraine has, for a number of years, eschewed the pragmatism needed to survive in the shadow of a more powerful, assertive neighbour and flirted with alliances Russia would never permit.
That America is at war with itself and unlikely to deliberately open a second front, that Britain is similarly unsettled suggests that allies once reliable are missing in action.
This unsettling and unnecessary vulnerability is behind the recent call from German chancellor Angela Merkel for the creation of a European Union army. She echoed French president Emmanuel Macron, who made a similar proposal.
“Jean-Claude Juncker already said that a common European army would show the world that there would never again be war in Europe,” said Ms Merkel, noting that Europe faces numerous logistical obstacles to greater defence integration.
In an ideal world these proposals would not demand attention but only the delusional can imagine this an ideal world. Maybe if we thought of an EU army as an extension of the UN peacekeeping missions, we have proudly undertaken for more than 50 years, the proposal might sit more easily.
Tragically, sitting on our hands, as most of Europe did after the First World War, with tragic results, is not an option.