World War I reached its 100th anniversary on Monday. One hundred years ago this week, European imperialism, nationalism, and Social Darwinism/scientific racism all led to what was once known as the Great War. It was a war that would leave ten million soldiers, sailors and airmen dead, another seven million civilians dead from military action, malnutrition and disease, and another 23 million wounded in action on both sides.
That war, a mostly European war of the great world powers, was itself based in the idea that Western culture and technologies would make this a quick and winnable war of dominance, for Germany, Britain, France and possibly Russia. The first war planes, the first tanks, the first submersibles, along with mustard and chlorine gas, nests of machine guns and trench warfare. It’s amazing how small-minded these so-called great powers were a full century ago, and so remarkable that we’ve grown beyond this thinking today!
Actually, not so fast! Our world seems to have learned little from the lessons of the First World War, repeating practices that leave the globe perpetually on the brink of chaos and potentially in peril of annihilation. We’ve seen this with the Second World War, with the Cold War and its myriad proxy wars in the Global South, with post-Cold War aggression in the Balkans, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and with US preemptive aggressions in the Muslim world. Ethnocentrism and ethnic cleansing in the name of a religion (or a lack thereof, in a couple of cases) or nationalism has been a part of modern war since World War I.
Imperialism and colonialism and resistance to both in the name of freedom, or too frequently, another form of ethnocentrism and religious nationalism. Name a given nation, and you have some strain of Western imperialism and colonization, resistance and ethnocentrism and nationalism (religious, anti-religious or otherwise) running through their recent history. India, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the former Yugoslavia, Perón’s Argentina, Pinochet’s Chile, the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, South Africa and apartheid, Israel and Zionism and settler colonialism, Japan and its military occupation of China, just to name a few. The First World War unleashed these forces this week one hundred years ago, a Pandora’s box that we will need to destroy, for it’s obviously too late to close it.
One of Sting’s songs from his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is titled “Children’s Crusade” (1984). It’s the story of Britain’s blind march into the First World War, the wasting of a generation of youth in the name of the empire, juxtaposed with the UK’s heroin and drug epidemic of the early 1980s.
Young men and soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade
Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
Though not his best work, Sting’s “Children’s Crusade” has made me think more than once about the brutality of humanity and this inherent need to dominate other human beings, as well as the lands and resources for which vulnerable people have been cleansed and displaced. He should update it for 2014 this way:
Midnight in Gaza, Twenty Fourteen
Bombed and shelled hospitals, pawns in the game
Ashes and sackcloth, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
And all for a century-old crusade of nationalistic paranoia, imperialistic abuse, and dehumanizing ethnocentric warfare.