Today, as I write, it’s Veterans Day here in the US. In the UK tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday, which commemorates the agreement to end fighting during the First World War in 1918. 99 years past. The Great War. The war to end all wars… Well that didn’t work out, did it?
I don’t mean to be facetious but I doubt that anyone really thought it would. WWI was a cruel war in so many ways and it must have been nice to believe that humanity would have been so shocked by the mass carnage inflicted on all states involved in that war that saner heads might prevail in future. At the time there was an attempt to find a solution that would achieve such a state by creating an organization that could act as an arbitrator, that might be able to get conflicts resolved before the situation deteriorated and war became inevitable. It was not a perfect solution but the League of Nations did point the way. It failed for any number of reasons but one major flaw was that the US chose not to get involved – a blunder, I would say.
Even though many of those who had fought in the first war and survived were still alive, 21 years later the world erupted into conflict again. It’s possible that such an organisation as the League of Nations, had it existed prior to WWI, might have been able to head off that escalation after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. The conflict leading to the second may have been harder to de-escalate (Adolf H putting Germany first, über alles) but it would have been nice to see if a League of Nations with the U S of A’s support would have had an impact. I like to think it might.
There are probably many reasons why we haven’t succumbed to that size of a conflict since the end of World War Two but chief amongst them must be the existence of the United Nations and the realization that it is good for any number of reasons to encourage international cooperation and interdependence. Yes, the United Nations is an organization with faults but it’s one that has had the support of the vast majority of nations of the world. A place where angry leaders and politicians can grandstand and blow off steam rather than blow up borders – not to say wars haven’t happened, and particularly nasty ones. But with commitment and with shared goals many disputes have not been allowed to escalate or, if they have, a coordinated effort by others seeking peace has reduced the impact of such calamities (let’s not talk about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars).
Of course, it helped that for much of the last century there were many leaders and people in positions of authority around the world who had experience of at least one if not both of those world wars. If they had not been there then their parents or grandparents had and had passed on their experiences in first hand accounts. People who, through experience, had come to believe that war was anything but a last resort, and even then to be embarked on only in times of extremity. But those people are no longer amongst us, or are very few and becoming fewer.
In their place we have leaders who find it easy to forget the lessons of the past, leaders who no longer believe it is good to seek to involve ourselves in world matters who (like the US in the 1930s) would rather seek international cooperation on their terms and their terms alone (if they seek cooperation at all). Leaders who want to build walls rather than connections. I know, he’s not the only one (I think you know to whom I might be referring) but he’s the one who leaves me sadly scratching my head.
While the fact that the home of my birth is in the process of separating itself from Europe is distressing, that’s small fry when you think of the potential impact of the United States (intentionally or accidentally) removing itself from the world stage. It’s important to reflect on the phrase which comes to mind the most when I think about Remembrance Sunday:
Lest We Forget
And I think I’ll leave it there.
Finally on this Veteran’s Day I want to acknowledge those in my family that have played their part in defending our democracies. My father’s father was in the Royal Army Medical Corps probably in the late stages or shortly after the First World War (we have very little information about his life but as a doctor he was probably an essential civilian worker during WWII) and my mother’s father was a captain in the Merchant Navy (and his ship was sunk by a U-boat in 1943). There’s more about my maternal grandfather in this blog I wrote 5 years ago. Both fine men, neither of whom I had the pleasure to know in person but we all thank them for their service.