Monday, May 30, 2005

It's just one war

Today is Memorial Day and the media and the celebrants bring out the last remaining WWI vets and the WWII and Korean War Vets and the Vietnam Vets and the two Gulf War Vets and honor them as they should. War is never glory and it is always pain, suffering, death and nightmares. Those who survive deserve the honors.

But what we forget, I feel, is that while we may call each war a separate event, every "war" since the opening guns of WWI has been but a battle in the war that started Aug. 1, 1914, when the German war machine crossed the borders of its neighbors. I was reminded reading Barbara Tuchman's "Guns of August" about the opening month of that war that all of the ills we have seen since then are directly connected to that month of August 1914.

World War I saw the old "royal" world of privilege and prestige for the nobles collapse for the last time. Oh, shreds of it still exist but they are essentially but shreds. The seeds of all the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, so far, were planted in that war. First, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and thundered down on France. Almost by accident, the French, with British help, managed to bog down the German armies in the trenches not far from Paris. This led to the bloody trench warfare that intensified the rage on both sides, but particularly the allies against the "Hun." Then the Russian armies defeated the old Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary which had been the lid over the boiling pot of the Balkans. In turn, the Germans soundly defeated the Russian army on the Eastern Front and that led directly to the fall of the fading Russian royal government and the rise of the Communists. And, finally, the Germans inveigled the politically corrupt Turkish Empire into the war on the German side. The Turks had maintained a tyranny over the Arab world.

What were the results? The vengeful allies demanded major reparations from the Germans which led to intense resentment and massive inflation in Germany that may have contributed to the international depression and which did lead directly to the rise of Hitler and World War II. When the Russian army was defeated, leading to stalemate and even more fear within Russia, the revolutionists who had tried to overthrow the tsar in 1905, succeeded this time. And after several months of struggle, the Lenin brand of communism was installed. The west's reaction to that led directly, after WWII, into the cold war that resulted in Korea, Vietnam, and Grenada and support for innumerable dictators around the world, as well as constant spending on arms for the world.

Today we are still living with the inept handling, in hindsight, of the Arab world by the victorious allies following WWI. The Turkish empire went south, the Arab world felt it deserved more control of its own interests and the manipulation of France and England, and later the U.S., in the Near East led to the tensions we are seeing there now.

This is the simplified history of what has been, so far, a 91-years war. Tuchman also wrote "A Distant Mirror" in which she dissected the 100-years war that led to the end of feudalism and the beginning of mercantilism. For the people of its time, it was not a 100-years war, but a series of wars that came and went. It was accompanied by the Black Plague that helped topple the establishment of the time. Today we have flu and HIV and maybe some others waiting in the wings.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that without seeing our wars of the 20th and 21st Century in perspective, we cannot see what is happening. We are in the cusp of a changing world. We still have feudalists and mercantilists and industrialists are there who want to go back to the world in which they originated. Toffler's First and Second Wave beliefs are still among us. But we are living in a changing world in which many of those beliefs no longer are viable. It has been the crushing blows of the 91-year war that has led to mighty changes in the way we live. When I was a child, we had no computers, no jet planes, no cell phones, no pocket calculators, no microwaves. Today we have them all. For good or ill, our world has changed under the impetus of our war. We cannot look at it as a series of separate events. We must look at how the pieces fit.

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