}

Monday, November 12, 2018

Armistice Day 100

The Great War, The War to End All Wars, The First World War: It ended one hundred years ago today (Europe time). The guns fell silent at “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918”, but all wars didn’t end, and the nationalism unleashed a century ago led to another world war within a generation. Was it worth the price?

I was born a little bit more than 40 years after the end of the war, so it was as much, and as little, a part of my life as a child as the Vietnam War will be for today’s toddlers. There’s one important difference, though: When I was a child, people weren’t conflicted about World War One, and they are about Vietnam.

So, as a kid, I remember watching the American TV sitcom “My Three Sons”, and one of the characters, Uncle Charley, was a World War One veteran who often mentioned “W, W, One” and “doughboys”. The actor who played him, William Demarest, really was a World War One veteran. As a kid, I was vaguely aware of older people in the community who were WW1 veterans.

By that time, veterans of World War 2 and the Korean War were in or approaching middle age, and they were the fathers (mostly) of my friends and classmates, the men who were part of the church council at my dad’s church, so they were common. Vietnam was just picking up speed, and the soldiers were young men “whose average age was nineteen”.

I mention all that for s simple reason: War didn’t end in 1918. It has stalked us like a nameless, shapeless monster, taking people from us too soon. It is undefeatable, invincible, and—one would think—impossible to keep away. We will keep having hundredth anniversaries of war, quite possibly forever.

What will be different is that as more recent wars pass farther into the past, they’ll seem more real than World War One does with its grainy black and white images, film with incorrect frame rates, and lack of sound. More recent wars are better documented, including moving images, often filmed in colour, and with sound. We may not have figured out how to end war, but we’re getting really good at documenting it.

The First World War unleashed the dark force of nationalism, which some 20 years later would lead to a second war fighting those same forces, but with the kings replaced with dictators. Nationalism became a force because there was nothing to stop it when it began. The USA, still an emerging global power, was gripped by isolationism, a force that continued to hold, even after World War One, until the country itself was attacked by nationalists in 1941.

Now, the world is again plagued by spreading nationalism, a dark force taking root in countries throughout the world, from Russia (again), to Turkey, countries throughout Europe, Brazil, and, of course, the United States. It’s hard to see how this cannot end in war yet again, unless the forces of democracy can band together and stop it. Can they? On November 11, 1918 some leaders thought they could stop nationalism and future wars. They were wrong. Will we do better?

World War One was ultimately pointless. It began as a spat between spoiled and privileged royal families that ended up burning down the world they knew, and unleashing forces that would take another war and millions of lives to beat back. Maybe World War Two would have happened in some form anyway, had the first one not happened, maybe it wouldn’t have. But either way, it’s impossible to justify the massive loss of life and the suffering caused by the First World War.

On April 2, 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson asked the US Congress to declare war on Germany. It was needed, he said, so that the world would “be made safe for democracy.”It was an absurd thing to say—the belligerents were imperial monarchies, after all—but he was on to something. He also said that “civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” and he was right. But it would take another world war to safeguard civilisation for—a few decades, so far.

Democracy is far from perfect. It takes too long, is too torturous and fractious, but it is the best hope for stopping the dark forces of nationalism and making war less likely. But if we are to defeat nationalism and to truly make the world safe for democracy, we must all take personal responsibility for resisting the darkness. It means voting, political activity, and even simply refusing to allow people to get away with racism and other bigotry and the dismissing of facts and truth. We must be the light standing against the darkness.

Can we win? I have no idea. But I’m damn sure not going to go quietly. I intend to rage against the dying of the light. If we don’t all do that, then the dead we remember from World War One, ended exactly one century ago, will have all died in vain.

They did their work, they paid their price, they their made sacrifice. We owe it to them to truly make the world safe for democracy.

Previously:

Anzac Day 2015 – the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli Landing, and the start of New Zealand’s World War One centenary commemorations.

Anzac Day 100 – the 100th Anniversary of the Anzac Day commemorations.

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