One-hundred years ago today, the warring nations in the largest conflict that the world had ever seen, signed an armistice, bringing an end the First World War. It swept much of the world for over four years, and made casualties of around 40 million soldiers and civilians across the globe; nearly half of those casualties were deaths. So many young men were either killed or, if they survived, returned home deeply disturbed, hopeless and depressed by what they had seen and done, that historians refer to them as “The Lost Generation.”
To a degree, it does trouble me that I seldom hear any discussion of World War I in the popular media, by academics or regular people. World War II has overshadowed its legacy, as it was more recent a more obviously mortifying example of mankind at its most evil and sadistic. However, I think that we risk forgetting about the horrors of the First World War at our peril. If you desire to understand the twentieth century that we lie in the aftermath of, it is essential to see what effect it had on mankind.
Nothing speaks more ill of the human race than when we take up arms and decide to, in the words of Rod Serling, “turn the world into a graveyard.” World War I was fought in the wake of pervasive militarism, nationalism and alliances that had turned into petty rivalries, with no common objectives other than to simply conquer and defend. It was fought with a slew of new, devastating weaponry, like tanks, poisonous gas and airplanes. These new implements of war were perhaps the biggest reasons so many surviving soldiers returned home with severe PTSD, as many veterans do today. If you have ever wondered why using chemical weapons is a war crime, read about victims of chlorine and mustard gas during World War I. The reasons, I assure you, will become abundantly clear.
If you want to see the human impact of World War I, read one of the many great books written by its veterans. Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms is a devastating novel based on his experiences in the Italian army, as is Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, who was in the British Army, in addition to being a great poet. The most moving novel about the war, however, is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, a former German soldier. No other book I’ve read so effectively articulates the desperation and suffering of war, while so carefully placing the reader in the shoes of a soldier. It was among the first books that the Nazis banned, in their attempts to squash anti-war sentiment.
I implore you to read these books, and to try to comprehend the wrongs of the past in a nuanced way. There is still an appalling amount of destruction and conflict in the world today, and by contextualizing it though history, you give yourself the ability to think about it in a better informed and worldly way. Today, when hearing about a war in a country you’ve never been to, it’s easy to compartmentalize it in your mind as something far away and irrelevant. It’s just that thing in the news. For all intents and purposes, it’s not real. Lamentably, we all do this sometimes. But by reading about what a war actually is, in both the past and the present, we can learn to be empathetic with those involved, and not remain passive, thinking nothing of our fellow human beings suffering.
That may sound idealistic, if not unrealistic for those without a deep-seated desire to read history or even current events. Some may even think that World War I was just any other war that happened a hundred years ago, and none of it matters today or affects us, even if all those people died. Some may think this about wars happening today, even. People die all the time, after all. To that, I quote John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
So today, November 11, think about what humanity is capable of, both great and evil. And do everything you can to ensure that we don’t turn this world of ours into a graveyard.