By Raffique Shah
November 14, 2018
I awoke last Sunday morning to see and hear French President Emmanuel Macron deliver an address before scores of world leaders gathered in Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. His was a good speech, an appeal for the world to not just to pay homage to the eight million-plus servicemen and women who lost their lives in the mistaken belief that they were fighting “the war to end all wars”, but also to note that if we did not learn from history, we were doomed to repeat the mistakes our forebears made.
One could not escape the ironies of the occasion, prime among them being Germany’s Angela Merkel exuding composure as she sat next to a nervous-looking Donald Trump. From an historical standpoint, Merkel should have been uneasy, since she represented the country that triggered two world wars that wreaked havoc and massive loss of lives on a global scale never seen before or afterwards.
Trump, on the other hand, should be basking in the glory of his predecessors in the United States presidency whose interventions, albeit late on both occasions, were decisive in determining the outcomes of the wars. But there he was, looking very much like a latter-day Adolf Hitler, who was quite a buffoon in addition to being psychotic, maybe even psychopathic. Trump may not have any of these mental disorders, but he is a chronic, compulsive liar, as proved by the media on numerous occasions.
So Merkel, whose political lineage includes Kaiser Wilhelm II, the erratic Emperor of Germany who led that country into war in 1914, and madman Hitler who sought to conquer the world in 1939-1945, commands respect across the world as one of the great leaders of the 21st Century. But Trump, who leads the most powerful nation on Earth, is generally regarded as a clown and an oaf—which denied him the reverence the holder of that office should have been accorded on that historic 100th anniversary of the Armistice, which took effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
That the end of that War did not signal the end of wars among nations, religions, ethnicities, ideologies and other causes not so célèbre is factual. Indeed, the Treaty of Versailles imposed excessively punitive reparations on Germany. The global economic meltdown that followed in the 1920s-1930s rendered repayments impossible, and that gave Corporal Hitler a platform for promoting Germany’s refusal to pay up and to promote national socialism, both of which found favour with the majority of Germans as well as other white supremacists in Europe, and yes, in Britain too.
So the seeds of war were sown in the very instrument of peace that the world pays homage to every November 11. In fact, the world has never enjoyed any peace, certainly not after World War II (WWII) ended in 1945. With the Soviet Union and communism becoming a military powerhouse, conflicts such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War followed almost seamlessly. Then there were multiple anti-colonial wars in which colonies of mostly European nations fought for their independence, the Arabs-Israeli conflicts remain a permanent feature, and so on.
Why, then, is there so much fanfare over Remembrance Day? In my case, as a Sandhurst-trained soldier and a student of history, I am acutely aware of the savagery of WWI, the barbarism that soldiers who fought in that war endured. All wars are hell, my instructors who tutored me, and who had fought in WWII or Korea, used to warn us bushy-tailed officer cadets.
But the stories coming out of WWI, the “quick war” that should have ended in four months, but widened across the world and lasted four years, were particularly heart rending. Trench warfare in Europe, in which soldiers from opposing armies virtually lived in trenches metres apart, neither side gaining ground for months, but both sides suffering carnage from artillery and machine gun fire, was pitiful. Worse, unable to get medical help for the wounded or not being able to bury their dead, in other words, living with their comrades’ corpses, was horrific.
At the time I trained in England (1964-1966), we sometimes hosted or interacted with WWI veterans, many of whom were amputees or victims of other permanent bodily harm. The stories they told of their experiences could move us to tears. Others, seen on the streets of London and other cities, were mentally deranged.
I should note that at the time I studied the 1914-1918 War, I was unaware that a British West Indies Regiment (not the Federal WIR in 1958) had been formed sometime in 1915, and its officers and men were posted to the Middle East and Europe. The history books did not record their campaign to enlist to “fight for King and country” or their eventual assignment to mostly menial tasks, not active combat. They encountered naked racism, as recounted in an excellent documentary “The West Indies at War” that is often shown on State-owned television.
Out of that war came many of the Caribbean leaders who, upon returning home, engaged in the struggles for constitutional reform, workers’ rights and later, independence. The names Arthur Cipriani, Uriah Butler and Norman Manley come to mind.
As I watched the 100th anniversary remembrances in Paris and London, memories of miles of military cemeteries spread across Europe that I saw while touring “the continent” back in the day, and of disfigured and deranged veterans, by now long transitioned, remain etched in my mind.
To think that men still wage war…