In the small, isolated hamlet of the Great Plains where, if I did not grow up, at least I spent my boyhood, a place where the nearby cattle significantly outnumber the people still today and little but the changing of the seasons occurs to mark the passage of time, there was seldom anything grand or calamitous that might serve to strike awe into a youngster like myself. My friends and I would swim in the public pool or take laps around the town on our ten-speeds in the summertime, casually fish the creeks and ponds year-round, and in winter sled the mighty bluffs adorned in all varietals of yucca and cacti, but by and large there was nothing daunting, nothing sensational, and little to make any real impression upon me in my youth; aside from the occasional death in the family or vacation to California, mine was in many ways a forgettable childhood. One great exception was the omnipresence of an immense granite monument sitting just outside the courthouse, utterly massive to an undersized boy, and with a warrior atop it. The soldier, forest green from head to toe, not unlike my plastic army men, sported knee-high boots, held a rifle in one hand, and had the other raised bravely as a fist, charging forward with a curious, saucer-like helmet on his head and a gallant, stoic expression forever worn upon his face. At least, that’s how my seven-year-old self remembers him, the soldier of my youth, the only soldier I can recall ever having met until I left for university. Thus, as a child, I was introduced and reintroduced unceremoniously to the Great War whenever I stopped my bike in front of his monument to marvel. He made me want to be a soldier myself, though I knew better even then to think I was made of the stuff of warriors. This soldier was impressive, and sometimes I would even try to invent for him a story in my mind, but I knew nothing of war, even less about his war; it was difficult for a little boy growing up in a tiny town in Nebraska to imagine how something that happened so long ago and so far away could matter very much to me.
The year 2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War, the War to End All Wars, the First World War, or whatever else we might like to call it. As human beings, we celebrate anniversaries, often for no other reason than that they have predictably and yet again arrived. Birthdays are a great example of this, wedding anniversaries another. We delight in the inevitable, or at least the predictable; oh, but how we love a celebration! And what better to celebrate, what more important to remember, than the eve of the event that would forever, irreparably alter our world—before fading bleakly into the annals of history, damned to obscurity by the black-and-white photography of the time, the death of those who lived it, and the subsequent emergence of still sexier villains, greater crimes, and the notoriously and increasingly finite attention span of the American populace. Indeed, it would seem that the event that shaped the last hundred years has been relegated to that of a supporting role in many texts and minds alike. However, as the centenary fast approaches, even we the people may pause to consider, perhaps for a final time, the war that did not end all wars.
While many anniversaries, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or the sinking of the Lusitania, the “passenger ship” that gave us cause to join in over there, seem likely to be marked even in the United States, one anniversary that is likely to go unnoticed in most parts of the world is that of the conversion of Highclere Castle, not far outside of Newbury in the United Kingdom, into a hospital for soldiers who were to be wounded in a war that was yet to come. This metamorphosis was instigated by the Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina, who married into her title yet approached her father, the senior Rothschild, to finance her philanthropic work. The estate’s profound evolution from a private home into a fully functioning and rather regal military hospital took place in the spring and summer of 1914, prior to the assassination of the Austrian archduke, prior to the mobilization of Austro-Hungarian forces, and prior to the subsequent declarations of war that would, one after another, thrust the world into a darkness from which it has yet to emerge. The otherwise ineffable timing of this young countess’s grand endeavor suggests in no uncertain terms that the coming war was seen by many as inevitable—not only by politicians, generals, and the like but also by civilians. Additionally, one might infer that her efforts to convert a civilian home into a military hospital suggest an understanding that this war might well exceed the scope and magnitude of those before it. After all, who among us has converted our own guest room into a home for wounded soldiers?
If the story sounds familiar, it may very well be. The popular BBC television series Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, and the entire second season of the show was devoted in large part to the Great War, a theme that continues to impact the characters even now in season four. In fact, the show focuses on the fall of the British aristocracy, itself an indirect product of the war. “The war changed everything” is a line fans hear again and again; whether or not we truly appreciate its meaning, however, isn’t certain.
One place where such a truth could scarcely be missed is at the National World War I Museum, located at Liberty Memorial just up the hill from Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri. That the war changed everything is evidenced by the very existence of the museum and all that it contains. Dedicated in 1921, Liberty Memorial and the museum on which it sits is the crown jewel of KC’s collection of world-class institutions, incomparable between Chicago and LA. At the National World War I Museum, preparations for America’s commemoration are in full swing, and there can be little doubt that they will be well worth experiencing.
But what might “we the people” actually be commemorating? As a nation, do we even know? Do we, as a collective society today, even realize what we’re talking about when we speak of the First World War or is it too far removed, too obscured by more recent events, too easily misinterpreted, too long ago, too far away? Do we realize what this war did to the world in which we live or are we, like the little boy of my childhood staring up in awe from his bicycle, impressed by its sheer magnitude without any real understanding of what it truly means to us, what it has done to us, and how it is influencing our very being still to this day?
There would be no way to convey in writing the full impact of the war without authoring some epic tome—though the library under Liberty Memorial boasts an impressive collection of literature for any who are interested. But perhaps a brief examination of the world as we know it today would begin to shed light on just what this war of old has left us with, and thereby, why it is important to keep it ever in our collective conscious as a nation.
To begin with, the war led directly to the downfall of four longstanding monarchies in Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey, and the dissolution of empires in every instance. In the case of Russia, the war contributed to the rise of Bolshevism, from which the revolutionary Joseph Stalin seized a control that would span the tenure of six American presidents, from the Wilson administration until shortly before President Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953. During that time, Stalin would segregate all of Europe east of Berlin, thrusting it into poverty and under totalitarian rule, and be directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of human beings in times of peace and war alike. Western fear of the Soviet form of government would lead to further rifts worldwide, including East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam, and the division of the Korean Peninsula. In every case, a few minutes of real “news” (as opposed to media gossip and dog show results) would instruct us that the results of these rifts remain with us today, a haunting reminder of a hundred-year-old war. One need not look further than the deplorable state of the entire nation of North Korea, and the egregious conditions to which those who live there are subjected, in order to get an idea of just how much damage was done by the war that did not end all wars.
In Germany, of course, among the immediate effects of the war was a period of poverty and political instability, in which ultimately an anti-Semitic Austrian would seize power through completely legal means and soon after deem himself “Der Führer.” The historian Michael Nieberg wrote that without the First World War, the Second World War would not have been possible, while the historian Doris Bergen, writing of the Second World War, wrote “Without the war, the Holocaust would not—and could not—have happened.” For a student of the Second World War and, in particular, the Holocaust, to miss the Great War is, in essence, to start in the middle of the story, in a place where it would be impossible to make any sense of things at all.
As is so often the case, and as it so often has been throughout the history of the written word, this war that did not end all wars impacted literature profoundly. Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, T. E. Lawrence, and many others, all veterans of the war, could not escape the experience when seated at their typewriters. So, too, the infamous “inklings,” C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, each notable authors and thinkers of their day as well as colleagues at Oxford University, were first brothers in arms in the Battle of the Somme. In addition to merely influencing the authors, of course, the war gave birth to many written testimonies as well. Historical documents such as the diary of American diplomat Henry Morgenthau or the brilliantly poetic memoirs of the German soldier Ernst Junger and so many others like him, each through different colored lenses, each with their own unique worldview, tainted by nationalism and the need with which all human beings can empathize—to be “in the right”—told their stories, one by one. Many more, of course, kept quiet and took their experiences to the grave. Unforgettable, too, are the Trench Poets, Hemingway among them, and the entire canon of poetry that was born of the war. The Briton Rudyard Kipling may have put it most succinctly, in his poem “A Son,” writing about the personal impact of the war on one, speaking to all:
My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.
Better known for his fictional works, the Nobel Prize winner would be spared the horrors of the Second World War. He died in 1936. But fictional literature was born of the war as well. Stories such as that of War Horse have captured the minds and spirits alike of readers young and old. In many instances, such stories are also turned into movies, notably All Quiet on the Western Front, Joyeux Noel, and many others, thereby reaching an even larger audience. In the case of War Horse, not even cinema could satisfy the masses, and today the show is also a wildly popular Broadway musical in which the story of war is all but lost behind grand puppetry. Who would allow for mud upon a theater stage?
But some things are stranger, and far darker, and more terrible than fiction could ever portray. During the war (which did not end all wars) one of the greatest crimes ever to be forgotten, or perhaps more accurately, ignored, was perpetrated against the Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire. Under the guise of armed military conflict, some 1.5 million Armenians were annihilated by the Ottoman Turks, many of them on forced marches through the desert, a crime that today many powerful nations, including Israel and the United States, willfully turn a blind eye to in exchange for Turkey’s favor and resources. In Turkey itself, Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes it illegal to speak of what took place, deeming the mention of past crimes “anti-Turkish sentiment,” while in the United States, even the boldest of presidential candidates, including President Obama, have reneged on stalwart promises to acknowledge this century-old genocide once they have taken office. Of course, Hitler, once a rank-less, hapless soldier in the First World War, was like so many others well aware of the event. Only twenty-some years later, one week prior to the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland on August 22, 1939, he instructed his commanding generals to act with exceeding brutality, stating:
Our war aim does not consist of reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language … who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?
Woodrow Wilson’s plan for a sustainable, independent Armenia was shattered when neighboring nations seized most of her fertile land and ports, leaving the newly formed nation and its ancient people landlocked, hungry, and surrounded by enemies. Every attempt to formally acknowledge this crime by the United States Congress has been blocked at the highest levels. To this day the people of Armenia lack the necessary resources to obtain true national autonomy; the sacred relics and historic landmarks that still lay across the border in Turkish territory, ancient churches, storied landmarks, and the historic Mount Ararat, suffer neglect and desecration, and may never be returned to the people to whom they rightfully belong.
Armenia, ravaged though it was, was but the first casualty of the war in that area, and far from the last. The entire Middle East as we know it is a product of the war that so very clearly did not end all wars. The Arabs who lived there rose up against their Ottoman overlords toward the end of World War I, only to find themselves briefly colonized and partitioned by British and French forces and then, once fragmented in the typical European divide-and-conquer manner, were left to their own devices shortly thereafter. As in so many African states and other nations, too, the brief institution of European systems of governance, economy, and other influences, followed by an immediate and total divestment and withdrawal, left newly formed Middle Eastern states in utter chaos, turmoil, and anarchy. For Americans, the Iran hostage crisis, followed by the Iran-Contra affair, two wars with Iraq, the toppling of a dictator, war in Afghanistan, the death of the Libyan ambassador and his staff, the loss of so many soldiers, so many husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, and countless other violent acts and altercations cannot be taken lightly, but can be traced back just slightly less than one hundred years without much difficulty at all. So, too, the Arab Spring, the good parts as well as the bad, from a new constitution in Tunisia to the recent reinstatement of military governance in Egypt, from peace talks with Iran to two million displaced in Syria and rising, and from the circumstances that brought us both the courageous heroism of Malala Mousafzai and the terrorism of Osama Bin Laden, all of this and so much more sits at the end of a trail of breadcrumbs that begins with the First World War.
With anniversaries on our minds, it would be a grave oversight in 2014 to overlook the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda that took place almost precisely twenty years ago. As most may have heard, this genocide was the product of “ethnic violence” between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples who inhabit the lush hillsides of the Mille Collines. What few may realize, however, is that these “ethnicities” and the violence that came with them were largely the product of Belgian colonial policies. The Hutu and Tutsi, distinctions that were more a matter of social class than of ethnicity or race, had lived in what the government of Rwanda today describes as “symbiotic harmony” for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the Belgians, who, guided by eugenics and racial policies modeled after those already in use in the UK, US, and elsewhere, created a ruling class out of the Tutsi herdsmen, and in 1933 issued ethnic identity cards to all Rwandans, cards that would be used in 1994 by the genocidaires to identify their victims. And when did Belgium lay claim to Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills? Why, they occupied it in 1916, during World War I, of course.
Today, a hundred years later, it is impossible for Europeans to forget the legacy of the war—the tangible, and sometimes very dangerous, evidence remains. Every year, French and Belgian authorities collect somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred tons of unexploded shells, grenades, and other munitions from fields where soldiers once had fought. Those not located and collected by authorities are sometimes exploded by plows and other implements. Since the end of the war, hundreds of people have died and still more have been injured—as recently as last year—by unexploded shells from the war that did not end all wars.
However, the greatest impact of the war may not be that which can still kill us or even that which we can see, but rather, that which never has been and never will be. More Frenchmen fell in the first hundred days of the Great War than America has lost in every war we have fought from the Civil War to the present day. This, of course, is not because we are a nation of pacifists—the French lost nearly half a million men in those one hundred days, and by war’s end in 1918, some sixteen million soldiers and civilians from around the world had lost their lives, while considerably more were left maimed or dying. Among them, thousands upon thousands of young American men who would return home “shell shocked,” a condition the study of which ultimately yielded the contemporary understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, only to be called cowards and told to shut up about it. What might all of these people, soldiers and civilians alike, have contributed to the world if only their lives had not been cut short by mustard gas, munitions, machine guns, and the deepest imaginable mud? Who might their children have become? What might they have invented? What might they have cured? Such questions may seem fruitless, but we must remember that war is an act of will, then and now. We, the world, chose to fight the war, and now we must live forever with the consequences.
A couple of months ago, I returned to Valentine, my little hamlet on the Plains, for a brief visit with what family remains there. I spent a few days out at the ranch with my parents, my wife, and our dog, before driving north to see old friends. Passing through the little town from my childhood that diminishes in size year after year, driving down snowy Main Street for at least a thousandth time, we passed the soldier from my youth. I pointed him out to my wife in passing, as an afterthought, and we did not stop. I did, however, notice that today he finds himself surrounded by a larger lawn than I remember, with a wall behind him and a flagpole too. Around him are monuments to wars and soldiers who followed after him, the heroes and the victims of all those wars that he, in spite of his stoic expression and warrior’s build, in spite of the glory and the granite, he somehow still did not succeed in ending.
All around the world, nations, communities, and the individuals who make them up are busily preparing centenary commemorations after their own fashion, in accordance with history the way they wrote it. Budapest may mourn the loss of her unpopular archduke, whilst Belgrade may celebrate the courageous actions of her gallant revolutionary. In Royal Wootton Basset, teachers at their fine academy prepare to take students over the Channel to tour battlefields where gallant Britons fell alongside Scots, the French, and many more, while on the outskirts of Cherleroi, a farmer glances grimly out his window and sighs, thinking perhaps of the black-and-white images on the mantle in the sitting room or maybe, instead, of the lingering danger of plowing his fields yet again this spring. In Kansas City, the staff of the National World War I Museum work long hours and weekends to ensure that even far away from the fronts of the Great War, those veterans who served “over there” will be remembered. And in Valentine, Nebraska, quite possibly farther from the front than any other place on earth, a statue of a daring soldier in knee-high boots donning a saucer-shaped helmet still stands atop his granite pedestal, withstanding snow, ice, and even time. Whilst wrapping up so many thoughts, each one a rabbit to be chased another day, I raise a glass of red wine to my lips and, glancing over the rim at the bottle resting on the table in front of me, I smile. “Marechal Foch – 2007.” Is there anything in the world that the Great War didn’t touch? A wine crafted by the vintners at Whiskey Run Creek in Brownville, Nebraska, even this delicate, medium-bodied red was born of a grape named for the French leader, Generalissimo Ferdinand Foch, a great commander in the war that truly, regrettably, did not end all wars. Alone in my study, I raise my glass to the statue soldier of my youth and to the fallen and never born alike who cannot raise one back.