Expectations for the centenary memorial to mark the end of the First World War were always low. Long before the first jumbo-jets carrying world leaders and other dignitaries touched down in Paris, the event was already being discussed in terms that made it feel more like a G20 style summit than a legitimate event to mourn the veterans of the world’s most disastrous war. Yet even with these low expectations in mind, the event’s descent into the hellish pits of vulgarity could not have been fully anticipated.
The morose spectacle of the progeny of the aggressive victors of the First World War acting as though there was anything remotely moral, ethical or righteous about their victory was enough to turn the stomach of the most well tempered observer of world events. Adding to this, the very presence of the Russian President was downright maddening as Russia was utterly destroyed by the events following from the country’s undignified exit from the First World War and entry into a blood-soaked civil conflict whose aftermath haunts much of western Eurasia and eastern Europe to this day. To this day, millions of Russians around the world are refugees as a result of the aftermath of the First World War and the Civil War that exacerbated the pain of the Russian nation.
And this was before French President Emmanuel Macron, a man whose country’s entangled web of alliances brought about the First World War, turned the event into an anti-Trump campaign rally in spite of the fact that the event was about the events of 1918 rather than the 2020 US Presidential election that France has no right to meddle in.
There is simply nothing to celebrate about the First World War as both the deaths caused by the war and its retrogressive geopolitical aftermath made the world a far worse place than it had been before the war. Today’s events merely confirmed that far from living up to the phase “lest we forget”, the lessons of the First World War have already been totally lost on those supposedly commemorating it. The garish spectacle of those advocating for war in Syria, Libya, China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and Korea eating beside one another off of golden plates without an ounce of contrition for the crimes of their forefathers was in reality an endorsement of the aggressive policies that the victorious side in the First World War continues to promote as a central element of foreign policy when instead such a mentality ought to be universally decried as war criminality in motion.
Below are my initial thoughts on today’s events written yesterday in anticipation of a display so morose that it was an insult to the life of every man who gave his life for the cause of a political class that is no better in 2018 than it was in 1914.
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Of all the modern wars that have claimed millions of lives, the First World War was the most tragic as its origins were in futility, its outcomes were universally negative and its veterans experienced a perfect storm of modern weaponry combined with comparatively primitive medical care. Thus, those who died often experienced painful deaths while those who lived often lived with deep physical and psychological wounds for the rest of their lives – the likes of which those who are not veterans could scarcely imagine.
The new political maps of Europe, western Eurasia and the Arab that were carelessly drawn during and after the First World War were not only the proximate cause of the Second World War but remain the underlying cause of multiple contemporary conflicts including those in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Israel-Palestine conflict and even the war in Yemen. As the root causes of all of these conflicts were the artificial divides of the Arab world among the imperialists of Britain and France, the victory of the Anglo-French Entente is hardly a cause for celebration – certainly no more than the rise of Hitler or the present bloodbaths on Russia’s historic western frontier which equally were and remain a direct result of how the First World War was ended.
And yet speaking personally, when First World War veterans from any side of the War were still alive, the end of the First World War was a cause for reflection and an incredibly sombre and important occasion. The 11th of November was once a day to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of futility, having done so without being offered a say in the matter. The fault of the First World War lies not among the soldiers but among poor leadership on all sides that sent a generation to an early grave while haunting those who survived.
After the war, Turkish Republican founding father Atatürk captured the spirit of circumspection that ought to have been universal after the war. Speaking about the British Empire’s failed Gallipoli campaign, the Turkish Republican leader said,
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well”.
Today, the veterans of the First World War are all dead. Not a single one lived to witness the centenary of the war that was supposed to end all wars. Because of this, a solemn tribute to the memory of veterans who died as early as 1914 and as late as 2012 should have permeated the spirit of November 2018. Instead, the progeny of both the winners and losers from 2018 are gathering in Paris to slap one another on the back in what has thus far been a kind of pseudo-G20 style summit maliciously masquerading as a memorial event.
Furthermore, because the last surviving veterans are no longer with us, the indefatigable anti-war spirit of many of these brave men has regrettably been lost to history. Instead, individuals with no sense of history beyond their own lives like Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May are glorifying militarism at a time when peace ought to have been the only rational conclusion to be discovered by anyone who knows anything about any aspect of the First World War.
During the protests against the war in Vietnam held over a number of years in the United States, a common refrain was “we are not against the soldiers – we are against the war”. Long after the guns of the First World War fell silent, this statement remains as apposite regarding the events which transpired between 1914 and 1918 as they do in respect of more recent wars.
Instead, the war is considered a victory for some and an historical footnote of some interest to others while the meaning of the war and the lessons derived from this meaning seem to have been buried along with the bodies of the veterans. In his play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare penned the following as part of Marc Antony’s eulogy to Julius Caesar:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones”.
And so it is with the veterans whose great spirit lives after them while in life, the ruling classes of the victorious nations of the First World War act as assassins far less noble than Brutus ever did when he plunged a dagger into a man he once thought of as a comrade.
In his script for Lawrence of Arabia, the greatest film ever made about any aspect of the First World War Robert Bolt wrote the following:
“Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men – courage and hope for the future. Then the old men make the peace and the vices of peace are the vices of old men – mistrust and caution”.
How tragic that these words are as true in 2018 as they were about the events of 1918!
May the veterans rest in eternal peace.