The first week of August is a busy one. As far as anniversaries go, the two most defining wars of the twentieth century (or really, the two halves of the same defining war) began and ended at the beginning of August: August 4th marked the beginning of the Western Front of the First World War, with Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, and August 6th & 9th mark the end of the Second World War with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This year, 2014, marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Since the end of June, commemorative ceremonies have taken place and we have been reminded – with good reason – through educational efforts of the causes, effects, and events of the war. From being reminded of just who Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Black Hand were, to being informed of how the landscape of Europe still bears the scars of the trenches, to being fed propaganda about how the First World War forged Canada as a nation, the legacy of the First World War is being brought before new generations. It is being recalled the way we are informed of current events and conflicts. The First World War was the conflict that de-mystified war for the common people and drove home the idea that peace was a better alternative. It was “the war to end all wars” because it changed the landscape of how wars were fought, physically and psychologically, and it set in motion the growing desire for peace that would change the view of the common person toward war in all subsequent conflicts hence.
In 1914, the declaration of war in Canada (which was automatic when Britain declared war) was met with fanfare and impromptu parades through downtowns – even as it was already evening. Men clamoured to sign up, even if they were too old or young for the requirements. This was made painfully obvious at Christmas of 1914 when the daughter of King George V, Princess Mary, organized a Christmas gift for every man serving in the armed forces. Boys were given a box with candies and a pencil made from shell casings. This was the alternative gift for non-smokers, but it was also automatic for those under 18. These boys were considered too young for cigarettes (let alone alcohol), but they were old enough to die en masse in muddy trenches.
In 2014, there was little fanfare anywhere. Yes, there were songs and marches, but they seemed eerily out of place in what was largely a funeral atmosphere. Hundreds of thousands of men were killed in the First World War, as well as many more civilians. It also led directly into the Second World War in which millions more were killed, punctuated by the catastrophe of nuclear warfare thirty-one years after a lucky assassin killed a very unfortunate Archduke. Since then, further declarations of war have not been met with fanfare, but with resignation and even resistance. In the twenty-first century, supporters of the military have bumper stickers that plead us to “Support Our Troops!” They are not even asking us for money, but only recognition as we make our way through the grocery store parking lot. In 1914, soldiers went to war with the nation behind them. In 2014, they are largely ignored and vilified – except on solemn occasions such as anniversaries.
But we are also much more aware of the hellish conditions of war, both for the military and for civilians. Whereas they waited for hours for a wire to come through in Canada from London to announce the declaration of war in 1914, we find out by the minute when war is declared across the globe against countries that barely existed a century ago.
It is hard to support war when, with a click of a button, we can view raw footage from a journalist of carnage amidst civilians getting bombed. It is one thing to support two armies fighting against each other – muddy trenches included. It is one thing to support soldiers protecting cities from invading marauders and protecting little girls on their way to school. It is quite another to support soldiers massacring civilians, terrorizing populations, torturing prisoners, or destroying cities.
We remember the dead from the First World War as names on a monument and those from the Second World War as faded memories or photographs. Seen in that light, which side they fought on doesn’t really matter anymore. One name is pretty much the same as another. One spiffy young soldier in a fresh uniform is no different than the other, especially in black and white. Ultimately, all war dead were someone’s child. They had mothers and fathers, families, friends, and usually significant others. Many of them had otherwise bright futures ahead of them. They all had things they loved to do, be it sports, vehicles, music, poetry, reading, or just spending time with their loved ones.
That continues today – whenever a soldier is killed in current Canadian conflicts (drawing on my personal experience), there are articles about them. We find out their hometown, their family, their favourite activities, their favourite type of car or music, and generally what type of positive character traits they possessed. We find out what led them to the military. What we don’t usually find out is who shot them, where they were from, whether or not they had any children, and what led them to be in a militia or army or walking up to a vehicle with a bomb strapped to their chest. Perhaps in a hundred years, we will care about this. I hope so.
In the past century, we have swung the pendulum from “war is good” to “war in evil”. It is neither. It is a part of our heritage since the first humans had a dispute over a dead sheep. Should we celebrate victories? Yes, within reason. Should we celebrate those individuals who put their lives on the line? Absolutely. Should we want war to happen? No. Should we celebrate the killing – nay, slaughter – of civilians? Absolutely not.
There was a song lyric popular in the United States prior to them joining the war in 1917: “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier, I brought him up to be my pride and joy. Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder to shoot some other mother’s darling boy?”