It was a world in which many people’s romanticized mental image of war looked a lot like a really awesome, albeit especially noisy, parade or a light-opera production of ‘Student Prince.’ Lance-carrying horsemen. Uniforms with gold braid and buttons. Big, furry hats. Bright colors and stirring martial music.
The conflagration that became the First World War was supposed to last but several weeks, ending sometime in late autumn. Some sabre-rattling. Raising of imperial flags. A big cavalry charge through the gently-rolling fertile lands of Belgium and France was supposed to end it while crops were still in the field.
Yeah, well, not so much, as it turned out in reality.
The real war was brutal, filthy, de-humanizing, ugly. It lasted years and virtually killed off an entire generation, mostly young men. Many of those who were fortunate enough to return home alive were changed in ways that made them unsuited to the lives they’d led prior to their war experiences, much less the lives they needed to live afterward. Many were permanently injured, physically and psychologically. The world that had been at war from 1914 to 1917 was a much harsher, bleaker and poorer place than it had been before the world’s ‘great’ imperial powers launched their war to satisfy nothing but ego and greed.
It’s estimated there were 37 million casualties. Just by way of making this scale tangible, that’s more than the combined population of the top 25 US cities in 2012.
Reflecting both the need and hope of the people left alive in its wake, it was coined ‘The War to End All Wars.’ And, sadly, that turned out to be a hopelessly romantic notion too.
On November 11th at 11 o’clock am, the warring powers signed an armistice, ending hostilities. It was the hope of most participants that the treaty, combined with the creation of the League of Nations, would make it possible for global war to be eradicated. In less than 30 years, that romantic ideal would be exposed as fiction too.
In America, we commemorate November 11th as ‘Veterans Day,’ to honor those who’ve served in our armed forces. While entirely worthy, I wish we’d commemorate it instead as the day the world let itself believe in the illusion of a final war. That might actually cause us to question our continuing national philosophy that we can engage in winnable, limited and acceptable wars in the future.