Guernsey Press

Colin Vaudin: We must maintain our humanity

We are at risk of forgetting that the moment we treat people inhumanely, we actually become inhuman ourselves, says former soldier Colin Vaudin.


Don’t fight because of hatred for those in front of you, fight for the love of those behind you.

War is truly awful. It isn’t glamorous – it is terrifying and frightening. The Nazi ideology portrayed the Aryan people as Herrenmenschen, or master humans, and their enemies, both domestic and foreign, as Untermensch or sub-humans. Crucially, this didn’t just create a view of superiority – it created a dehumanisation of others. Creating an ideology of dehumanisation is inherently evil as it enables otherwise civilised people to justify atrocities that they would never normally contemplate.

I visited Bergen-Belsen in 2023 and it made me listen again to the original reports from BBC reporter Jonathan Dimbleby. After fighting across Europe for a year, it would have been reasonable to expect that he would have become immune to the horrors of war. But his report demonstrates his inability to contemplate what had been done deliberately to these innocent victims of the Holocaust. The ideology of superiority, the related lack of empathy and compassion, while not the root cause, enabled these horrors. If you don’t believe someone is human, you don’t treat them as such, and it releases the darkest recesses of our character. The years after the horrors of the Second World War saw the creation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 in an attempt to restrict or mitigate the worst excesses of war on combatants and non-combatants. At its core are the principles of humanity and that all people, even enemies, must be treated humanely and protected as far as war allows.

Don’t fight because of hatred for those in front of you, fight for the love of those behind you. This is a phrase I first heard from my regimental padre before I deployed with my regiment to Afghanistan. A Scottish baptist, he was superb at communicating complex issues, such as humanity and compassion, with all my soldiers, regardless of rank or position. For me, the phrase has a common theme with the Kohima epitaph, ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today’.

Both these phrases talk not of hatred, or superiority, but of love and compassion. My concern over recent months is that we are at risk of forgetting that the moment we treat people inhumanely, we actually become inhuman ourselves.

On Friday 22 March, four gunmen entered a music concert and, firing indiscriminately, killed more than 142 people, mainly teenagers and young people in their twenties. That’s 142 young lives snubbed out for no reason other than they went to a concert. In comparison, the Manchester concert bombings of 2017 killed 22 innocent people. The difference between the two tragedies was the recent attack was in Moscow and there was, at best, simple ambivalence in our response. After all, Russia has attacked Ukraine and hence all Russians are bad or not worthy of our compassion.

Similarly, the conflict in Gaza is driving a narrative that people are inherently Islamophobic or anti-Semitic and so, depending on your viewpoint, the only victims are on your side of the conflict. In some quarters the horrors of 7 October become less horrific as it was only committed against Israelis and the response is less horrific as it is only being committed against Palestinians.

This article isn’t about military strategy of the course of these two wars. I will return to that in subsequent articles. This article is about humanity and to warn people that we must guard against any narrative or ideology of superiority which justifies extremism and excess.

I have seen the horrors of war, I have seen man’s inhumanity to man, and it rips through your soul. Wars might have to be fought, aggression needs to be stood up to, but in doing so we must maintain our humanity. Empathy for others is important in all aspects of our personal and professional lives but it is both more important and more difficult to maintain in times of war.

We live in a time of conflict, and even here in peaceful Guernsey it is incumbent on us all to be mindful of not stoking the fires of division and hatred.