Sunday, November 11, 2018

The End of the War to End All Wars

100 years ago today, 11/11/1918 at 11:11 AM (Paris time) an Armistice ending the Great War went into effect. The fighting stopped; the guns fell silent. (There's a Vonnegut quote going around today, about the moment the war ended: "I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God.")

The war did not end, officially - that took a couple more years, and when it happened, the resulting treaty went a long way to starting the next, even worse war. The fighting did not stop - there was still a war in Russia, involving most of the countries fighting WWI; that war only got worse in the next couple years. Even on the last day of the war, typically for WWI, the combatants were scrambling for position, and another 2,738 men were killed and 10,000 odd wounded. But the utter catastrophe that was the Great War ended.

The War to End All Wars did not, in fact, end wars; the war to Make the World Safe for Democracy, did not, in fact, make the world safe for democracy. People did try, though - not very effectively, probably because the unchecked power politics that started the mess continued without interruption. England and France made Germany pay; they worked to isolate the new Soviet Russia; they remade the maps of Europe and the Middle East without very effective consultation with the people they were redistributing, and usually to serve their own interests; they paid no mind to the interests of their colonies, and divided up German colonies (as "mandates" rather than outright possessions, but that's not the strongest distinction in history.)

But that doesn't diminish the importance of this day. (It might betray the importance of this day, though.) The war ended: soldiers went home, families were reunited, countries had the chance to recover, the places where the war raged could try to rebuild. And people did try to do something about this thing that had just happened. The Great War was a massive trauma - psychologically as well as physically. The war broke the world, which had seemed to reach a kind of comfortable stasis in 1914 - at least in western Europe and places like the USA - that was gone, any expectation of uninterrupted progress and improvement was gone - it felt like the end of the world. And (as I've harped on before) there was nothing here to take comfort from, except the fact that it ended.

And that leaves this day as the one good thing about that war. It made it a symbol of the desire for peace, the work of making peace. It is the symbol of remembering the horrible things men do to one another; the horrible things, as well, our machines to do us. The horrors were documented, film and photography, and famous poetry and art - there is a reason governments try to suppress those images: it does not pay to think too much about what a bullet can do to a body. Let alone gas....

I have let my First World War posts slip lately - there are lots of things in the war and around the war to write about, and I wish I were still as energetic about them as I had been. We live with the consequences of this war, maybe more than any other war; we live with the failure to actually build on the end fo this war. (We did far better after the next one, though I fear a lot of that was directly related to the fact that the winners were divided into two camps almost as hostile as the two sides had ever been. So we rebuilt Germany and Japan to thwart the Soviets - cynical reasons, maybe, but we did it, and it worked. At least for Germany and Japan.) I have been stunned, living in this country, the last two years - thinking about "making the world safe for democracy" is a bitter thing to swallow in a country where democracy has been so eroded in the last couple years. Maybe that will change, as we slowly bring things right in the USA - I don't know. WE can still vote, though; when we vote, we can still take power. Maybe we can fix it.

And maybe, we can look at the one good thing from World War I: the fact that after after 4 years of evil and destruction, we managed to stop.