Lessons Not Learned

I accompanied a friend to Westminster today, 100 years exactly from the day that the war to end all wars started. The Cenotaph stood serene as always, a hauntingly beautiful monument to the memories of the millions lost. Yet, barring commemorations being covered in the news, it was as if London had forgotten the 20th century’s first great tragedy.

When I was younger, growing up in a country where the word “World” in World War I seemed to be a misnomer, my maternal grandfather was busy instilling in me a love of history. Among the things he taught me, years before I experienced it in an expressionless school textbook, was the horror and the futility of the Great War. It was a lesson I never forgot, its sadness remaining as an almost romanticised constant regardless of where I encountered it later.

It was that sadness that stayed with me through my school History lessons, taught with mechanical efficiency and little else. It stayed with me when I studied History at a different school for my International Baccalaureate, where I learned for the first time the cost World War I had on Asia. And it stayed with me through my undergraduate and postgraduate years, where the war was a part of so many of my lessons.

You would think I would get used to the sadness, or at least rationalise it and move on. The truth is, the more I learned about World War I, the more real and ever-present the sadness became. London and Dhaka might have forgotten the scars of 1914-1918, but there are parts of the world still reeling from it.

Just as it ushered in the end of the Age of Empire, so too did it usher in the beginning of new sufferings. World War II, of course, is a conflict that no one fails to link with its predecessor. Yet, these same people often forget that so many of the battle lines in the world today can trace their genesis to the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.

Syria is amidst a civil war that the world chooses to ignore because the alternative is admitting its shame in failing the country. Israel-Palestine dominates the headlines every so often, but not many remember that World War I provided the impetus to create the boundaries of the current state there. Africa’s ongoing territorial plights and the struggles of the Indian subcontinent might have peaked at various times, but the seeds were sown when the last shot rung out over the trenches. Even the USA’s championing of well-intentioned but horribly misguided interventionism can trace its roots to Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the conflict in 1917.

The world would like to think it has moved on from the horrors of those four years. On a material level, we have indeed made advances. But the scars run deeper than we would care to look. The Cenotaph’s inscription reads: “The Glorious Dead”. We eulogise them, praise their sacrifices and respect their bravery. Let us not then forget they had hoped theirs would be the last war ever fought. We should try to edge the world towards that utopia.

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