One hundred years ago today, the guns fell silent.
They fell silent, that is, on the battlefields of the First World War. A last few men died on the morning of November 11, in response to orders that the men at the top had already decided were meaningless. Then, at the pre-arranged time of 11:00 a.m., everyone stopped shooting. It was so simple, after all: just stop shooting.
Of course, the guns started up again soon enough. In other places, and then, twenty-one years later, in the same places. They have rarely fallen silent, ever since we invented guns. Before that, we had quieter ways to kill each other, but we’ve never stopped.
Every Remembrance Day, we pause in our different ways to remember all the dead and wounded in all our wars. We remember on the day that commemorates the end of the once-called “Great” War, November 11, 1918. And after all the bloody conflicts of this century, that First World War still captures our imagination.
It wasn’t the deadliest war of the century. But falling as it did between the invention of the machine gun and the widespread use of airplanes for bombing, it was perhaps the first war with death on such a horrific scale, and the last where that scale was still possible for the human mind to grasp. It was a conflict that illustrated in vivid colours the bravery and suffering of ordinary fighting men, and the vanity and stupidity of those who ruled them. It was a war that need never have been fought: a petty power struggle that cost millions of lives.
Due at least in part to the bungled peace process that followed that November 11 armistice, the “war to end all wars” was followed by its inevitable successor two decades later. This time, Germany was led by a villian of such comic-book awfulness that few questioned the necessity of war, either at the time or in retrospect. The horrors of Nazi Germany, especially the horrors of the Holocaust, were so intolerable that we could forgive or overlook the horrors committed by our “good guys” in the attempt to stop them.
And once again, millions died — brave soldiers, and probably some cowardly soldiers too, and lots and lots of civilians who had never made the choice to go to war, but found war exploding all around them or dropping on their heads.
The power struggles among the victors of that war led to the world I was born into: the world of Cold War, where humans, for the first time, developed weapons theoretically capable of destroying all life on the planet. For forty-five years, while smaller conflicts flared and died and killed around that planet, the great powers played a long game of chicken over who would dare use these deadly weapons.
In the end, they tired of that game. As a species, we seem to have decided it’s less work to destroy the planet by greed and consumption and laziness than by dropping bombs. And largely, we have outsourced the business of killing in large numbers to terrorists and “rogue states.”
We didn’t get rid of the bombs, of course. We kept them around, just in case.
For all the Great Literature it produced, my favourite World War One novel will always be the first one I read, L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside. At the end of that novel, nineteen-year-old Rilla records in her journal the words of her recently-returned soldier brother:
“‘We’re in a new world,’ Jem says, ‘and we’ve got to make it a better one than the old. That isn’t done yet, though some folks think it ought to be. The job isn’t finished — it isn’t really begun. The old world is destroyed and we must build up the new one. It will be the task of years. I’ve seen enough of war to realize that we’ve got to make a world where wars can’t happen.'”
The fictional Jem Blythe speaks these hopeful words in 1919; Montgomery published them in 1921.
In 1921, Adolf Hitler was named leader of the Nazi Party in the Germany.
It’s hard to know what to celebrate, 100 years after the end of the war that began all the other wars. In that century we have made so much progress as a species. Diseases have been eradicated. Advances in communication and transportation have made possible things that were only dreams before. Huge groups of people who were considered barely human in 1918 now enjoy the same rights under the law as wealthy white men did in 1918. People are better educated. Workers have more rights. Poverty and infant mortality are declining almost everywhere.
And yet. The climate is changing and we can’t be bothered to figure out how to stop it. And in the face of a more and more globalized world, where we all have to deal with each other, an unimaginable number of people in “free” countries (sometimes whole governments) have responded by turning inward: condemning the Other, boosting an imagined racial superiority, building metaphorical and literal walls. In World History, I teach “nationalism” as a deadly underlying cause of World War One. After a century of mostly moving away from me-first nationalism, more and more countries and leaders — including the president of the United States — are now proudly declaring themselves “nationalists.” “Our people first, and screw the planet and all those other, lesser people on it.”
I was raised to believe two stories about the history of the world. One was taught to me in church, the other by the surrounding humanist culture. Both were, in their way, hopeful.
The church taught me that the world would get worse and worse and then God would dramatically intervene to save us. The culture taught me that the world would get better and better and we would solve all our problems and save ourselves.
Looking back 100 years to the day the guns went (briefly) silent, wondering about those soldiers who died to help build a world they could not imagine, I can find hard evidence to support both beliefs — which means neither feels completely true. The world is getting much, much worse, and much, much better at the same time, and while we have not seen evidence that God is going to dramatically intervene, we also, to be frank, haven’t shown much sign of saving ourselves either.
There are plenty of people who believe neither story: who simply accept despair and defeat. Who look back at 1918, and all the war since, and say that it will never get better. That we can rely on neither divine help nor human goodness to break the endless cycle of violence and hate.
100 years after the horror of the trenches…
70 years after Kristallnacht…
29 years after the Berlin Wall fell…
A day or a week after whatever the last horrific headline was …
…it’s hard to be hopeful. Hard to know, sometimes, what my hope is based on.
But I still hope. I don’t always know why, or in what. But the hope I hold to is the only way I know of not breaking faith with those who sleep: in Flanders Fields, and in cold graves at the bottom of the ocean, and in Auschwitz, and in Hiroshima, and at Ground Zero, and in Afghanistan, and in every place humans have slaughtered other humans for the past 100 years.
I try to keep faith.