It goes by many names the world over. In Canada, Britain and Australia, we call it Remembrance Day. In the United States, it’s called by Veteran’s Day. In New Zealand, France, Belgium and Serbia, it’s known as Armistice Day. And to the Polish, it’s Independence Day since the end of World War I was also the occasion when their country achieved statehood.
Interestingly enough, the war that it originally commemorates also goes by many names. To those who fought in it, it was the Great War, but also the “War to end all wars”, as no one who lived through it could fathom that any nation would ever go to war again. And to those who have went to war again just 27 years later, it would come to be known as World War I or the First World War.
Regardless of the name, November 11 is a day when people the world over come together to mark one of the worst periods in our history, celebrate those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and reflect upon the terrible lessons that were learned. And while it is easy to look upon the world and imagine that we’ve learned nothing, I choose to believe otherwise.
When the world went to war in August of 1914, the news was greeted with general elation for those involved. In Berlin, Paris and London, crowds emerged to celebrate the fact that their nations were mobilizing against their enemies. In Canada, people readily volunteered to serve overseas and “fight the Hun”. The propaganda mills of every nation were running overtime, stoking the fervor of war, claiming rightness, and that God was on their side.
Four years later, few retained these romantic notions of war. Those who survived the carnage were known as “The Lost Generation”, and those born after the war entered into a world struggling to leave the memory behind and get back to normal. When war was once again declared in 1939, few were enthused, and the general attitude was one o fear.
In fact, part of the reason “Appeasement” – the strategy of giving in to Hitler’s demands, or accommodating Japanese and Italian expansion in Africa and East Asia – was permitted was because no one wanted a repeat of the last war. Even in the Axis nations of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the general public entered the war only reluctantly, convinced they had no choice and fearful for how it might turn out.
Six years, 70 million lives, 1600 cities, and several attempted genocides later, the victorious nations of the world once again came together with the common goal of lasting world peace, human rights and economic development. This was embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Court of Justice, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group.
Despite the prevailing mood that a new “Cold War” was already brewing between east and west, the word’s “Never Again” were spoken by people on all sides. After two World Wars and the near total-destruction of many nations, it was understood that the world would not be able to endure a third. Somehow, and despite the arms race of the latter of the half of the 20th century, peace would endure.
Lucky for all of us, the Cold War ended some two decades ago and the specter of World War III with it. While many wars took place during the intervening period and there were a few close calls (The Cuban Missile Crisis being foremost), a nuclear crisis was continually avoided because all sides understood that no one would emerge the victor.
Today, wars still rage in the underdeveloped regions of the world and even amongst the so-called “developed” nations – the rational ranging from fighting extremism to trying to foster nation building. Nevertheless, I can’t help but look back today and think that those who died and sacrificed so much taught us something invaluable and enduring.
Sure, the Great War did not end all wars, nor did those that followed it. But with every mistake, with every new sacrifice, with every new conflict, surely we have learned something. Were it not for the UN and the spirit multilateralism the prevailed after the Second World War, World War III may have been unavoidable, and might still be a possibility.
And while there were still wars between proxy nations during the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam taught us the futility of political conflicts, a lesson which helped end the Iraq War sooner and with less loss of life than would have otherwise been possible. These sentiments have since been applied to the war in Afghanistan and the drone wars, two more unpopular campaigns that are sure to end in the near future as well.
What’s more, the genocide of the Jewish, Roma and Slavic peoples all across Europe taught us the evils of ethnic cleansing and man’s capacity for hate, lessons which have helped us confront and combat genocide in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, East Timor and elsewhere. They have also forced us to contemplate genocides which have taken place on our soil, in Australia, Canada, the US and Latin America.
To look at the state of the world today, it is easy to grow cynical and say that we’ve learned nothing. But when you consider that fact that we no longer live in a world where total war is seen as glorious, where two superpowers are aiming nuclear-tipped missiles at each other, and where aggression and genocide are actively ignored or accommodated, you begin to appreciate what we have and who made it possible.
But most importantly of all, to say we’ve learned nothing is to disrespect those who made the ultimate sacrifice, not to mention those who came home forever changed and scarred. For these veterans, servicemen and women, and people who risked life and limb to ensure that war would bring peace, that people would remain free, and that greater evils would not be allowed to prevail, saying “it was all in vain” renders what they did for the rest of us meaningless.
With that in mind, I’m very happy to announce that next year, in April of 2014, my family and I will be visiting Europe to witness the Centennial of World War I. While we’re there, we will be visiting the grave sites of those who died overseas, several battlefield from the First and Second World War, and will bear witness to one of the greatest historic events in our lifetimes.
My father made the trip once before and remarked with awe how to people over there, the wars are not something that are commemorated once a year, but on a regular basis. But next year, it is expected to be especially poignant as people from all over the globe converge on Flanders to pay their respects. I expect it to be very eye-opening, and you can expect to be hearing about it the moment I get back!
A sober and reflective Remembrance Day to you all. Peace.