Lest we... forgot

Ralph Zuljan

The observance of November 11th as a day to honor the veterans of war began after the First World War. Originally, it was universally called Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Since then, the day has been given added significance by giving recognition to the soldiers who have fought and died in all the wars. The name has changed too. In the United States, November 11th is now called Veterans Day. In the British Commonwealth countries, it is called Remembrance Day.

It was inevitable that the meaning of November 11th would change since any enduring relevance of the armistice on which it was based was lost on those that fought in the bloody wars that followed. Propagandists made numerous proclamations about the Great War, perhaps the most ironic was President Wilson's comment this was "the war to end all war." Of course, the high hopes about the ending of World War I were not realized.

Less than twenty years later, the Second World War began and there was no optimism about its consequences. While the protagonists all believed in the need for war, there were no illusions about the cost in blood -- at least, not initially. Even Hitler took note of the silence of the Berlin crowds as their soldiers marched to war. In Britain and France, there was certainly no rejoicing when war was declared.

Participants in World War II did not make express any optimistic expectations about the results of this war at its outbreak, in stark contrast to the prequel. Nonetheless, this war dramatically reduced the number of war-related casualties experienced by the states involved. With something like 50 million dead, Europe and Asia in ruins, perhaps the dramatic decline in warfare ought not to be surprising. Human beings have some sort of collective memory and at the end of the war, the idea of war on this scale became associated with self-destruction. Peace was achieved. And remembering the dead was a tribute to the sacrifices made to reach this end.

John Lewis Gaddis called it the "long peace" and attributed it to the advent of nuclear weapons and the threat of mutually assured destruction. However, Gwin Dyer, in a television documentary and book simply titled War (now out-of-print), noted that there is nothing historically uncommon about the fifty-something years of relative peace that followed the end of World War II. The anomaly is the short time span between the two world wars. Many scholars have noted the connectedness of the world wars. Versailles settled none of the issues raised by World War I; the Second World War settled those issues. At the end of that war the balance of power was very clear. The international institutions constructed on the ruins of war reflected the reality of two new "superpowers" and their relative strength in the community of nations. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the United Nations Security Council. Its permanent members were the United States, the USSR, Great Britain, France and China.

In fact, however, the Chinese seat was held by the Nationalists. Within three years, they would be defeated in the ongoing civil war against the Communist forces. Mao's forces benefited greatly from the Japanese armaments that the Soviets left on the field, for them to claim. It was a credit to the United Nations system that the Security Council seat was taken away from the Nationalist pretenders and given to the Chinese Communists. That, however, was the last significant change to the UN made to reflect reality.

For all intents, the recognized international order continues to reflect the end of World War II. Few of the leaders of that era would believe the changes that have taken place. Germany is united, Czechoslovakia is divided and the USSR does not exist. The restructuring of the rest-of-the-world has been even more dramatic. Colonialism is dead. Meanwhile, the former British colony of India, for example, is a growing presence on the world stage. It is probably the most ignored of the significant powers.

The confidence in American power has never been greater. American military spending has never been so disproportionate to the perceived threats. Commentators have drawn the parallel with Great Britain in the nineteenth century and it is probably fair to say that America is in some sense the British Empire of the twenty-first century. On the eve of the First World War, Britain was perceived as the greatest of the great powers but its entry into the war on the side of the Entente proved to be less than war-winning.

AJP Taylor once commented that had Imperial Germany won World War I, it would have become a satiated power interested in nothing more than peace and free trade. The Federal Republic of Germany, today, seems to reflect such sentiments rather well. Perhaps if the Germans had been granted their "place in the sun" neither war would have come to pass. Alas, there were no international mechanisms available to achieve German goals without war and it is worth noting that the historical reality does not suggest a simple solution either. Instead, after defeat in two world wars and forty-five years of cold war, the Germans reached a status quo they could live with. In the process of fighting the rise of Germany, three great powers lost status: the French, the British and the Russians. While the Russians regained status after the Second World War, as the Soviets, that gain proved to be ephemeral.

Einstein once said about the postwar world that "everything has changed but our thinking." Restructuring international order has traditionally been achieved through war. It is perhaps important to remember that the way we got here was through a vicious bloodletting known as World War II. Perhaps that was necessary and inevitable because we have found no better way of altering established power relationships to reflect reality -- lest we forget.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on December 1, 2002.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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