OSAKA – Cambridge University Library in late July made available free to all comers digitized copies of the journals of Siegfried Sassoon, decorated war hero, and critic of the callous behavior of warmongering political leaders. Cambridge is to be congratulated and thanked for its inspiring generosity in the true spirit of academic freedom.
Sassoon’s work is worth reading today not merely for his descriptions and drawings of the agony of the battlefield trenches, but also for his “Soldiers’ Declaration” protesting against the way that politicians had twisted and used and abused the war.
One hundred years ago, after the first shots were fired in World War I, supposedly the war to end all war, the biggest tragedy is that Americans, Australians, British, Chinese, Europeans, Indians, Japanese, Koreans and Russians still have leaders with the same narrow chauvinist mind-set as the callous politicians condemned by Sassoon.
Sassoon’s journals are still flecked with the mud of the trenches. He described the first day of the battle of the Somme in July 1916 as a “sunlit picture of Hell.” That was before rain and mud and mustard gas and winter and cold made the trenches more murderous than Hell.
World War I, declared to give the Germans a short, sharp shock, dragged on for four years and led to the deaths of almost 10 million combatants and 7 million civilians. Altogether 70 million people fought, mostly Europeans, but including more than a million Indians fighting for Britain, Americans, who were late entrants, and Japanese.
The main devastation was in Europe, but the battles spread across Europe to Africa and Asia and the Pacific, including the German coaling port of Qingdao.
How many times was “The Last Post” played earlier this month in cemeteries and at cenotaphs in Europe and Australia in salutes to those long ago slaughtered in pointless war?
In the United Kingdom, mawkish ceremonials got out of hand. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian claimed that “The Great War has become a nightly pornography of violence” with Great War diaries, poems, plays, even Great War bake-ins, fashion shows and souvenirs, including Royal Mail “classic, prestige and presentation packs” to “enable you to enjoy the stories and the stamps.” Outside the Tower of London at least, the 888,246 ceramic poppies did convey the impression of a spreading river of blood.
In places like India and Japan, the war commemorations were nonexistent, which is a pity because careful reflection on war and peace would be of great benefit even today, especially today. India contributed 1.1 million men and more than 10,000 nurses to the British cause.
As British minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi reminded her countrymen, the soldiers fighting for Britain “weren’t just Tommies (a common abbreviation for the British soldier) — they were Tariqs and Tajinders too (common Indian Muslim and Sikh names).”
Mohandas Gandhi helped to recruit Indian volunteers. And the Indians took heavy casualties, at Ypres and on the Somme, in Egypt and in Mesopotamia (straddling modern Iraq and parts of Syria and other countries).
Japan’s role was smaller but significant. Tokyo was allied with Britain and France, and played an important role in securing the sea lanes of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans against the German Imperial Navy.
Japan seized German possessions in the Pacific and East Asia, and besieged and brought the German surrender at Qingdao. Without mobilizing its economy, Japan gained a seat at the top international table for a time.
But what does it all mean?
The dead are long gone, names on headstones if they were lucky to be identified. Their comrades who survived have also died.
Harry Patch, the last Briton to fight in the trenches, who died in 2009 at the age of 111, declared a few years before he died that the war was “calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings … war isn’t worth one life.”
The war destroyed the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and czarist empires. It fatally weakened the British Empire and encouraged Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence. It led to votes for women, who were heavily involved in the war effort.
It also sowed the seeds of the next global conflict because of the heavy reparations forced on defeated Germany, led to the Great Depression and the rise of Communism, Fascism and Nazism.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to establish the League of Nations, but opposition in Congress meant that the U.S. did not join the league.
Repercussions of the Great War rumble on today, especially in the Middle East: the Balfour Declaration promised, but did not accomplish, a Jewish homeland; Britain and France carved up the old Ottoman Empire and created their own countries that they could influence, if not control, rather than recognize the demands of Arab nationalism.
Since 1945, the lesson is that peace and international trade have brought prosperity, whereas small wars have brought misery to the victims. The global peace is fragile, and too many people in leadership positions refuse to learn their history lessons.
In Europe, French, German and British leaders stood together in war commemorative ceremonies, but old nationalisms are rearing their heads across Europe.
In Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West have locked horns over the future political course of Ukraine. Putin’s “Plan B” probably involves a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.
In America, a Republican Congress prevents President Barack Obama from even considering international solutions to the enormous problems confronting humanity.
In New York, the United Nations echoes Benito Mussolini’s complaint about the League of Nations that all is “well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.”
In Asia, most dangerously, commentators, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have made superficial comparisons between Europe in 1914 and Asia today, although it is not clear who is supposed to be reprising Britain’s role and who, Germany’s.
China, Japan and South Korea are still picking at old sores rather than learning from the past. If only Obama and China President Xi Jinping could visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki to understand Japan’s pain.
More important, if only Abe would dare to visit Nanjing to say simply, “I am sorry” for all the suffering.
Then we might retrieve the best promises of our common humanity, not get bogged down in the trenches and atrocities of the past whose dead cannot be brought back to life but whose descendants can live more fulfilled lives.
Instead, in myriad small-minded ways, Japan irritates the issues, while Xi pursues a nationalism with a dangerous edge, seen in recent pursuits against foreign corporate business practices in China and against Christianity, as well as in demands that Hong Kong bow to Beijing’s dictates.
Particularly between China and Japan, there is the constant danger that shots may be fired by accident or miscalculation. Even in the last few days, the shadow air war between China and Japan, each patrolling what it claims to be its own air space over disputed territories, has seen new accusations.
For the moment, West Asia is relatively quiet, except for regular atrocities in Afghanistan and recurrent hard-line Islamicist outbreaks in Pakistan.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi still has his honeymoon lull to build on his successes in inviting his South Asian counterparts to his swearing in and in his initiatives with the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Maybe when he finally gets to Japan, he can deploy peacemaking skills with Abe to connect with his newfound friend Xi in China.
Maybe politicians can learn from the throngs of foreign tourists the world over who happily flock to bargains and fresh experiences, whose money contributes to the local economy wherever they land and who are welcomed in most places without their passport being checked to see if their money is good enough.
Can they get a message through to the chauvinist politicians? Lest we forget, as the war memorials say.
Kevin Rafferty, a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University, formerly served as editor of The Universe, the largest-selling Catholic newspaper in English, and executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group.