Saturday, July 25, 2009

As the WW I generation completes its pass into history...

I am struck by the comments of Harry Patch, the last surviving and now deceased English (though not necessarily British empire) soldier to fight in World War I. From the article:

"Today is not for me. It is for the countless millions who did not come home with their lives intact. They are the heroes," he said. "It is also important we remember those who lost their lives on both sides."

Patch said he did not speak about the war for 80 years. But he came to believe the casualties were not justified.

"I met someone from the German side and we both shared the same opinion: we fought, we finished and we were friends," he said in 2007.

"It wasn't worth it."

The World War I Allied soliders had, I think, a better sense of the futility of war, than, say, soldiers who fought for the Allies in World War II. World War I veterans saw that the slogan of the war they fought in, "The war to end all wars..." was a cruel illusion. Then, they learned how arms manufacturers manipulated governments--not that the government leaders needed much manipulation--and prolonged the war.* They also learned how effective the propaganda machines operated by government and national media figures had become, as well. While Patch may have came later to realizations than many of his fellow World War I veterans, late is better than never.

By contrast, World War II soldiers, focused on defeating the Axis, and then prevailing against the Axis, have long had more optimism about entering into subsequent wars, and more trust in their governments. It is, sadly, I believe, why American veterans of World War II did not see the imperial aspects of the Korean War and Vietnam War, and were so trusting of the propaganda from government officials about those wars. And that is perhaps why French veterans of World War II did not see the imperial aspects of the Algerian War for so long, either.

I speak in generalities here, and offer these observations for further thought as opposed to a hard and fast conclusion. Still, I am struck by comments from various WW I veterans like Mr. Patch's over the years as that generation of soldiers faded into history.

Locally, in the U.S., I am also struck by the lack of fanfare for those who faded from the scene who had fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. I think that is because that war, while highly successful from a military standpoint, is seen as an almost purely imperial war, and so few people--outside of Rand Corporation circles--see the word "imperial" as being positive in connotation.

War may sometimes be necessary, but most often war represents a failure on the part of human beings. The devastation war brings is rarely justified or cleansing the way some forresters may properly see a fire in a forest. Instead, war is terribly destructive and so terribly hateful. And for those who say war is inevitable, well, so is peace inevitable.

Notwithstanding those points, I am not a pacifist because some wars again may be worth the tremendous cost at the time they are fought. It's just that those who support entering or starting a war should bear a heavy burden of proof. However, as we saw in the build-up to the Iraq War II earlier in this decade, the burden of proof is too often placed on opponents of a war, especially in our empire-supporting corporate media.

On a lighter note, I must say I love the name of the last English WWI soldier: Harry Patch. It is right out of a Dickens, Hardy or Greene novel. Good-bye, Mr. Patch. You are a hero in my eyes for having the candor to talk about war in the way you did.

*For a short, modern update of the role of arms manufacturers in world conflicts, see this article by a Bay Area writer, Paul Rockwell.



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