A baby boomer’s remorseful but realistic appraisal of war

We have all known war. It helped define our boomer generation. And as writer Bill Cushing points out on this Veterans Day weekend from his home in Glendale, California, we won’t likely be the last generation.

Baby Boomers as a generation represent a post-war population explosion and have experienced the notion of “war” all our lives: Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, even the outlandishly expensive Cold War.

Now we approach the centenary of the first “modern war” of the 20th Century, one that proved a strange and ironic mix for both history and humanity. World War I began with romantic notions of war, partially fueled by glorified impressions of battle displayed in statues and paintings throughout Europe. The chauvinism of Europe’s youth convinced them of the “justice” of their cause, no matter which nation theirs was.

Parades became the order of the day. Eager recruits marched off leaving friends and family, seeking glory, honor, and praise in battles that mixed cavalry and infantry with tanks, aircraft, and machine guns. It was a contradictory blend of old and new. It’s safe to say that the “Great War” acted as a true “bridge” between centuries, even introducing the world to WMDs by way of chemical warfare. Its battles were for inches despite its moniker of “world” war.

Still, the name was not the only irony in what events foreshadowed. A German corporal in WW1, Adolph Hitler, dispatched messages. It wasn’t much later that he delivered the ultimate message that this was never to be the “war to end all war.”

Perhaps its greatest irony is that World War I began as a political pipe-dream to end warfare on the continent. Because the 1800s became known by some historians as “the century of wars,” governments envisioned that the treaty system— whereby nations would lock arms with others in defense of future attacks— would make war so repellent, it would never happen again. As with most political myopia, the flaw in the system revealed itself rather quickly after a Bosnian shot Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading to the war (that event being the stock answer to the test question, “What started World War I?”).

Troops using gas masks toward the end of World War One.

However, how could a single Hapsburg death pull the entire continent and later the United States, far across the Atlantic, into a multi-year atrocity of such a magnitude? After all, the Austro-Hungarian Empire only became a major political player by means of a two-nation merger, and Sarajevo’s high point was being known as the “Jerusalem of Europe,” another ironic touch in that the name combines the terms yarah (to cast) with shalom (peace).

An honor presented to Bill Cushing for his service in the U.S. Navy and the U.S.S. Donald B. Beary. Bill is considered a “plank owner” or a member of the first crew aboard any naval vessel. It’s considered quite an honor for sailors.

If the original hasn’t seen much peace since it was named, how could its knockoff expect better results? Once these fairly minor players of continent declared war on each other, no other nation could stand aside because every one of them was somehow connected to some other country in an interconnected web of treaties.

The treaty system, rather than preventing war across the continent, ended up dragging everyone into one. The main point is that what H. G. Wells called the “war to end all wars” proved to be such a rousing success of misplaced loyalties and expectations that it became the precursor to more war.

And, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

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2 Comments

  1. Very well done and thought provoking. I just read Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos and he effectively highlights the awful, meat-grinder insanity of ‘world’ wars. Hemingway made it romantic in A Farewell to Arms; of course, he was never a ground soldier, but an ambulance driver, and could ‘bail out’ whenever he wanted to, unlike the men that were conscripted to fight. I have a theory about war. I think the general population has to share the blame. I know a lot of people blame ‘old men, sitting in smoke-filled rooms.’ I don’t thin they are solely to blame. The population must ‘give permission.’ They are enticed, as you note, and as Dos Passos dramatizes, with glorious statues and parades. But, still, the people must choose, must give their permission. Why would they do such a thing? Boredom. I believe that whole civilizations get bored after a certain amount of time and crave the extreme drama that ‘world’ wars, or at least televised smaller wars, provides.

    We haven’t had a big, exciting, ‘great’ one in a long time. But I believe one is coming. Probably with China. Now that China considers herself a world power, and has a ‘chip on her shoulder’ for very real, past injustices, some… in China are itching for a payback and a chance for their rightful place, running the world. I’m sure many in the PLA believe it’s ‘their turn’ at the world helm, and democracy, is messy and cannot do the job.

    What we need is an ‘International Mission to Mars,’ a drama ‘almost’ as grand as a world war. Millions all over the globe could tune in nightly to see how Boris, Tex, Wong, and Andre get that new bunker dug, and who will win the affections of the three remaining females.

    Have a good day.

    1. Thanks for the added comments. This is a shortened version of a “lecture” I deliver to my classes when discussing propaganda, but I think it caught the essence of the talk. Of course, if we really want to slow the notion of war , I think we should simply have the political heads of state represent the combatants in mud wrestling. Naked. And sell tickets. . .

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