Almost ten million people died in combat in the course of four years. 2.5 million people a year. On average, six thousand, eight hundred and fifty people a day. Every day. For four years.
One of the most famous battles involved a marine assault on a shoreline, watched over by the enemy on rocky cliffs. The allies won that battle, in a way, and held that rocky shore for nine months, but got nothing out of it save the death of 130,000 people and the birth of two nations on the other side of the world.
In one battle, an eight day long scrum for a few meagre meters of depth stretched along miles of width, 7 people died every minute for eight days.
We said 'everything changed' after 9/11, but very little did.
Everything changed after the Great War.
Empires fell: Germany, Russia, Austria, Turkey. England and France tottered on the brink of collapse. The United States became the strongest economy in the world, but tried to hide from its great power status. And, in Europe at least, a dark and terrible despair blanketed the people - a despair which, in some ways, has never truly left. But how can anyone blame them? 1/3 of the fighting age male population of England was killed, and a greater number in almost every other power. In Turkey, 1/8 of the entire population was wiped out.
Imagine that. 1/8 of your country, killed in a pointless war.
I read the complaints about the terrible number of American men killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sometimes it's all I can do to keep from laughing. This? Our casualty rate now? The deadliness of modern war? It's nothing. Nothing compared with the civil war, or WW2, or the absolute mind-numbing horrific destruction of the Great War.
November 11, 1918, was the day the insanity stopped. It turned out, it stopped only for a while; it came back with a vengeance, two decades later. But for a time, the terror ended, and there was a tentative peace and a sigh of relief throughout the land.
So today is the day we remember. The day we remember the birth of the modern age, and the men who sacrificed to bring it to us; the day we remember how terribly close we came to destroying ourselves.
I say we, for even though the US was but little involved, and late, the US - particularly at that time - was culturally so enmeshed with the west as to be indistinguishable from it. We, the western world, the children of the renaissance and the enlightenment, came close to destroying ourselves. We did not believe it could happen; in the insanity of our grief afterwards, we deluded ourselves into believing that we could just prohibit it from happening again. We know, now, that we were wrong; such prohibitions are not enough.
But we hope.
We hope it never happens again.
And we know, in our souls, that our hope will be meaningless unless we remember.
We cannot forget.
We will not forget.
As we wait for the passage of the last person with personal memory, let us keep alive the candle of secondary memory, and let us bear witness to her passage.
16 years old when I went to war,
To fight for a land fit for heroes,
God on my side,and a gun in my hand,
Counting my days down to zero,
And I marched and I fought and I bled
And I died & I never did get any older,
But I knew at the time, That a year in the line,
Is a long enough life for a soldier,
We all volunteered,
And we wrote down our names,
And we added two years to our ages,
Eager for life and ahead of the game,
Ready for history's pages,
And we fought and we brawled
And we whored 'til we stood,
Ten thousand shoulder to shoulder,
A thirst for the Hun,
We were food for the gun,and that's
What you are when you're soldiers,
I heard my friend cry,
And he sank to his knees,coughing blood
As he screamed for his mother
And I fell by his side,
And that's how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other,
And I lay in the mud
And the guts and the blood,
And I wept as his body grew colder,
And I called for my mother
And she never came,
Though it wasn't my fault
And I wasn't to blame,
The day not half over
And ten thousand slain,and now
There's nobody remembers our names
And that's how it is for a soldier.
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