A year ago today marked 100 years since World War I came to and end, and all over the world, people gathered to remember. The day before yesterday also marked an important anniversary: 40 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which (symbolically), marked the end of the Cold War – or, at least, the beginning of the end.
The Cold War was not a war as such, but
“a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union with its satellite states (the Eastern Bloc), and the United States with its allies (the Western Bloc) after World War II.”
And while it was not a war as such, it did include some serious wars, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Anniversaries like these are always opportunities for people to look back, and to remember. The questions are “What (or who) exactly are we to remember – and why?” One obvious reason to remember is so that we can try to learn from the past. Learning from the past isn’t always that easy – two people can study an event that happened in the past and come to different conclusions as to what they ought to learn from it. Looking back at the Cold War is a case in point. Andrew Bacevich, formerly a colonel in the US Army, and now a professor at Boston University, reckons that America learned the wrong lessons from the Cold War, and Daniel Larison agrees:
One of the wrong lessons that U.S. policy-makers drew from the events of 1989-1991 was that the U.S. was chiefly responsible for ending and “winning” the Cold War, which inevitably overestimated our government’s capabilities and effectiveness in affecting the political fortunes of other parts of the world. The far more critical and important role of the peoples of central and eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself in overthrowing the system that had oppressed them was pushed into the background as much as possible. The U.S. took credit for their success and policy-makers frequently attributed the outcome to the policies of the late Cold War rather than to the deficiencies and failings of the other system. After waging stalemated and failed wars in the name of anticommunism, U.S. policy-makers wanted to be able to claim that they had “won” something, and so they declared victory for something that they hadn’t caused.
And, having misread history, the US government made serious errors in policy:
The U.S. not only congratulated itself for achieving something that was accomplished by others, but it also assumed that it could achieve similar results in other parts of the world. . . . That triumphalism sowed the seeds for many of the more significant post-Cold War failures that we have witnessed since then.
And Larison concludes:
American policy-makers are not known for sober re-examination and acknowledgement of error, but these are exactly the things that are needed if we are to stop making the same blunders and learning the wrong lessons from the past.
But an even more basic mistake with regard to war is to forget what we are remembering.
If one looks up Remembrance Day on Wikipedia, a note under the title says
“Not to be confused with Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day. This article is about the military memorial day on 11 November. “
The article then says
“Remembrance Day (sometimes known informally as Poppy Day owing to the tradition of the remembrance poppy) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth member states since the end of the First World War to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. Following a tradition inaugurated by King George V in 1919, the day is also marked by war remembrances in many non-Commonwealth countries. “
If one goes to the page on Armistice Day, the note says
“This article is about the memorial day to honour the war dead following the Armistice at the end of World War I. For memorials on 11 November after World War II, associated traditions in Commonwealth countries and more details of related memorials in other countries, see Remembrance Day.”
The article begins:
“Armistice Day is commemorated every year on 11 November to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France at 5:45 am, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I,”
Well, I was confused – and I suspect that I am not the only one. Apparently today is both Remembrance Day and Armistice Day. I honestly wonder how many people in the UK know that? I doubt that there are many.
To add to the confusion, in America, today is Veterans’ Day:
“Veterans Day (originally known as Armistice Day) is a federal holiday in the United States observed annually on November 11, for honoring military veterans, that is, persons who have served in the United States Armed Forces (and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable). It coincides with other holidays including Armistice Day and Remembrance Day which are celebrated in other countries that mark the anniversary of the end of World War I. Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. At the urging of major U.S. veteran organizations, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.”
And to complete it, yesterday was Remembrance Sunday.
“Remembrance Sunday is held in the United Kingdom as a day “to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts“”
That quote, by the way, comes from the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
What should we remember?
Which brings us to the question: what exactly are we supposed to be remembering at this time of year? And who is to tell us? The Department of Culture, Media, and Sport?
Well, if we go back to Wikipedia’s article about Remembrance Day, it says “Remembrance Day is observed on 11 November in most countries to recall the end of hostilities of First World War on that date in 1918. . . . The tradition of Remembrance Day evolved out of Armistice Day.”
In other words, Armistice Day was the original – and everything else is either a renaming or a spin off. The whole thing started with celebrating the coming of peace, and remembering the carnage, and ended up, thanks to politicians, being about remembering the service of members of the armed forces.
Hence Danny Sjursen (a retired U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, in an article entitled “Why we must reclaim Armistice Day” writes
The original spirit was ‘never again.’ Today, thanks to endless war, we celebrate veterans with a mere ‘thank you.’
and goes on to say
“for all of World War I’s horror, futility, absurdity even, the veterans of the war collectively emerged from the sodden trenches imbued with a vocal philosophy of never again. Indeed, they celebrated the moment the guns finally fell silent, the 11th minute, or the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, 1918, as Armistice Day. It was, romantic as it now seems, widely believed that theirs would be the last war. In fact, millions of lucky survivors left the war deeply dedicated to ensuring that be the case. Much of the finest Western literature of the 20th century, unsurprisingly, generated from the pens of disgruntled, damaged veterans—Hemingway, Graves, Fitzgerald, Sassoon, and many more—forever changed by the experience of needless war. “
If the original spirit was “never again” – that is certainly a worthy goal. And one of the reasons why World War I was the war that gave us Armistice Day (and Remembrance Day, Veterans’ Day, and Remembrance Sunday) – is because in some sense, that war was particularly horrific and costly.
Remembering the forgotten
But war goes on, and it continues to be incredibly costly. Last month, a UN Development Programme report came out that said “If fighting continues through 2022, Yemen will rank the poorest country in the world, with 79 percent of the population living under the poverty line and 65 percent classified as extremely poor.”
Yemen was poor before the 2015 war began, but the poverty has gotten much, much worse. For over a year now, the situation in Yemen has been recognised as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and it is entirely man made. Daniel Larison again:
“Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since 2015, a database project that tracks violence said Thursday.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, said in a new report its death toll includes more than 12,000 civilians killed in attacks targeting civilians directly.
The report is counting only combat fatalities and civilian casualties, but the war has been much more destructive than this number alone would suggest. The estimated loss of life from starvation and disease caused by the war and coalition policies is more than 130,000, and that is likely to be on the low end. “
In 1914, Lawrence Binyon, in a poem entitled “For the Fallen”, wrote a line that is heard by millions every year at this time: “we will remember them.” By “them”, Binyon meant members of the British Armed forces killed in action in World War I.
But when the words are said today, they apply to many other people. What about including the people in Yemen who have died as a result of starvation and disease caused by war? Is there any chance that we will remember them?
I like what Danny Sjursen says about “never again”.
But when he says “It was, romantic as it now seems, widely believed that theirs would be the last war. In fact, millions of lucky survivors left the war deeply dedicated to ensuring that be the case“, one does not quite know whether to be wistful about their idealism, or just to smile sadly at their lack of realism.
And I go back to what Daniel Larison said about the hubris of US policy-makers, who “wanted to be able to claim that they had “won” something, and so they declared victory for something that they hadn’t caused.” We – i.e. people – tend to think that we can achieve things that are simply beyond us.
However, I do believe that there will be a time when wars will cease. It won’t be human effort that will bring that about. Almost 3000 years ago, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote:
“In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”
That tells me that the hopes and goals of those idealists who said “Never again” were sound. But furthermore, I believe Isaiah is right. I don’t know exactly how it is going to happen. But Isaiah also say something about how it will happen, and about the person who is going to bring it about.
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan — The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”
There are some things that we can’t achieve. In the meantime, however, we can get on with doing as much as we humanly can to keep war (and the damage it causes) to a minimum – and to look to the government of the Prince of Peace (rather than the kind of governments this world has at the moment) as the answer to the problems that the world faces.