By Arthur H. Gunther III
If, at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of each year, from 1918 on when “The War to End All Wars” was over, you would begin to toll a bell 20 times a minute for the 37,468,904 total in casualties, it would take more than 30,000 years to somberly do so.
Today, on the August anniversary of Great Britain’s 1914 declaration of war against Germany, and also in the month that the United States said it would not get involved, but eventually did, the dead, the wounded, those with “shell shock” must not be recalled simply as numbers.
Why didn’t this First World War prevent all others? In one of the costliest battles of the 1914-1918 conflict, the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, the British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day. When it was all over and just six miles gained for the Brits, there were 1,219,000 dead and wounded. And that does not include the emotionally afflicted, people who in World War II we would term suffering from “battle fatigue” and now, as the wars continue, “post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
War does not end because greed is always with us — greed of nations, individuals, the military-industrial complex that profits so well. War does not end because of power and false pride by nations who are really little children taking affront in what begins as a playground insult and escalates into utter horror, as happened when the dominoes toppled in 1914. The entangling alliances of that time over Belgian neutrality and world trade, culture, ethnicity, old hatreds were the excuses to rally patriotism.
Soon enough, the voices of the eager volunteers became the shrill cries of the brave as they went over the top, and as quickly, the deep stillness of the forever graveyard. War is folly, and in the end it creates little that could not have been gained by compromise and common sense, long before madmen such as Hitler have a foothold that can only be broken by war.
In “All Quiet On the Western Front,” the famous post-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, which details his fellow German soldiers’ physical and mental harm during the war and the isolation and detachment from ordinary life when back home, the character “Kropp” says, “”It’s queer, when one thinks about it … we are here to protect our Fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right?”
And, “We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left.”
Now, more than 100 years later, the long trenches of the Marne, Passchendale, Verdun, so many other battlefields, still echo in history with their artillery fire, machine guns, death and madness, for war never disappears. The great still is indeed today’s all quiet on the western front, 2014, but the battles are stirring elsewhere. Is the Korean Penninsula next?
On this anniversary of the beginning of a war meant to end it all, and, coincidentally the 53-year mark of America’s accelerated effort in Vietnam, a nation with whom we now trade, the bells must continue to toll, for nations are ruled by men, too often by the folly of such.
As in “All Quiet …”: “While they (the pontificating teachers and politicos) continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.”
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.