My alien pal Marty is normally a stand -out, what with his green skin, lizard-like hands and chinless head, but suitably dressed he merges seamlessly into any gathering of the European aristocracy, of which there were many representatives at the Passchendaele remembrance ceremony earlier this week. I had urged him not to go, but he was anxious to understand one of the great tragedies of earthling history, which he had come here to study.
I accompanied him at a discreet distance, not wishing to participate, if truth be told, but concerned about his safety, knowing that if he was outed, he might well be dispatched as a Bosche come back from the dead. The solemn remembrance of half a million dead young men was of course moving, and I was in a sombre mood when later I asked Marty what he’d thought of it . He snorted – something that Martians are good at with their long noses – and told me he is still puzzled. When I pushed him further, he said,”Your Prince Charles was insisting on the courage of the soldiers who fought here, but I am more impressed by their stupidity.”
I asked him what on earth he meant.
“Well, even a Martian can tell that there was no good reason for this war, if there can ever be a good reason for war. In this case there were just a lot European empires jostling for the best chances to dominate the world. Most of those who assisted the slide to war had no idea of new technologies or the carnage they could cause. Most young men had no quarrel with the young men on the other side, yet they let themselves be ordered to kill them by a amall class of patriotic cretins. And you wonder why I call them stupid!”
I sighed at this, and made some important points:
1. The young men had no source of information independent of government propaganda.
2. Although some volunteered, most were conscripted, amd would have gone to prison for refusing to fight.
3. The popular press, the mass of citizens and the churches, were enthusiastic supporters of the war, and of the young men who fought it. Anyone with other opinions was very unpopular.
4. For these reasons it was unfair to label that generation of young men as stupid.
“Tell me things I don’t know, baby,” he said in that irritating Martian drawl. “All you’re saying is that they belonged to a stupid society. A society too stupid to have a press that thinks and writes independently; too cowed to oppose the crime of conscription; too conventional to have churches that might stand up for the views of Jesus. No, it’s true the young men were failed by their culture and their religion, but still, they knew what they were being asked to do: to go and kill other young men who were in the same position as themselves. By the time of Passchendaele, many of them had heard some facts from older men about the nature of the conflict, yet still they went like lambs to the slaughter, because they hadn’t learned to think for themselves or to organise together against the establishment. I am not saying these men were thick and unable to think, but that they were stupid because they did not use the brains they had. Those who have youth and strength and vitality and courage will always be used by older people who lack these qualities but possess cunning, unless they have a humane ethos and learn to question any departure from it.”
I said that Plato believed that justice in the soul and in society were mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing, but never succceeded in explaining how either could grow from the corrupt souls and societies which exist now.
“Surely I don’t have to tell a minister of Jesus that the transformation of individuals and societies grows from those who act now as if true justice has arrived, making its goodness available to them. They do not wait for the perfect society to arrive but create communities of justice in the midst of the world as it is. And they educate their children to think and act in the same conviction. If your church had been doing its job in 1914, in Germany and in Britain, many lives might have been saved.”
I observed sourly that whenever the church had acted in the way he was describing it had been savagely persecuted and the lives of many of its members had been lost.
“Not lost,” he said, “but given as a sign that people can do justice even in the worst circumstances. This is something I did not know until I came to your troubled planet.”
I thanked him for recognising some value in our civilisation, but wondered why he had not learned these things at home.
“You think I’m here on a kind of gap year,” he replied. “That is not the case. I’m here because our civilisation has been much like yours, and our violence to each other and our planet has left no more that a hundred of us alive today: we are a threatened species. I am here, as numbers of my colleagues are amongst other intelligent species, to learn what wisdom we can for a new start. Your Jesus had extraordinary wisdom. I don’t understand why he is not more valued, especially by his church. I will take his wisdom back to Mars, but maybe you could use it to prevent more Passchendaeles, and more memorials that praise the dead rather than damning the causes of their deaths.”
I wondered aloud if there might be room for homo sapiens on Mars if things went badly on this earth.
“It’s impossible now to survive on Mars without peaceful cooperation,” he told me. “Maybe you’re not quite ready?”