Hundred years since World War One: What have we learnt?

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Russian forest trench at the Battle of Sarikamish, 1914–1915 - Photograph: Wikipedia

Wong Soak Koon reflects on the legacy of a war that changed Europe and produced seismic reverberations all over the globe.

On 11 November 2018 the 100-year commemoration of the Armistice, which ended World War One, was celebrated with much pomp and ceremony in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the guests, who included the movers and shakers of the world. Billed as “a war to end all wars”, World War One in fact initiated the industrialised mass destruction of modern warfare which involves the production of new and deadly weaponry.

Perhaps it is good for us now to pause and reflect on the legacy of a war that changed Europe and produced seismic political and economic reverberations all over the globe. Historians and others, far more competent than I, have done this expertly; so what I shall do is simply add my own thoughts, some garnered from teaching war poetry.

The Armistice was signed at 5.10am on 11 November 1918, when allied and German officials agreed to cease hostilities. Tragically, it only came into effect at 11am, just a matter of hours later; yet this delay led to the loss of many more lives and further injuries to soldiers on the battlefront.

I cannot help but marvel at how men, in decision-making capacities, wreak havoc simply by their limited wisdom on duration and time in the charting of conflict. What had caused those holding power to conclude so recklessly some four years before the Armistice, when the war began in 1914, that this would be a quick, decisive war?

If it was simply war propaganda and political rhetoric, then it was a callous miscalculation that resulted in a prolonged war where millions lost their lives. Such prematurely confident conclusions on war duration continues into recent times in conflict-ridden areas.

Afghanistan is one tragic example. As award-winning war reporter Christina Lamb recounts in her engaging book Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to A More Dangerous World, the human costs are staggering when soldiers are mired in a conflict that was mistakenly deemed a short, decisive engagement. In his riveting film, Lions for Lambs, which I have analysed elsewhere, this Afghan engagement receives Robert Redford’s directorial critique.

To return to the horrors of World War One, I refer to Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, where a soldier, dying from poison gas, is described as “floundering like a man in fire or lime”. Mobilising graphic details, Owen lingers over the excruciating suffering of the gas-struck soldier: “the white eyes writhing in his face” (distorted by pain and spasms); “the blood gargling from corrupted lungs”.

What is equally, if not more, effective is Owen’s conclusion that the kind of horror war unleashes is so repulsive, so hideous, even the Devil is sick of it (“the devil sick of sin”). Far from heroic images of soldiers sent off to the battlefront with fanfare, Owen’s battle-weary troops are “coughing like hags”, “knock-kneed” from sheer exhaustion and, though some are young, they all look “like old beggars under sacks”.

Whenever I read this poem, I feel anew the horrors of the Western Front and Flanders Field as Owen’s mastery of images, onomatopoeia and similes work their magic to call up the sights, sounds, smells, touch and even, the taste of war.

Yet war is big business. Without the possibilities of war, how would the sale of arms and munitions contribute to the coffers of certain countries? Sadly, the long grasp of consumerism can extend to shopping for arms as nations engage in arms purchases, not least so as to be able to parade defence capacities in the pomp and pageantry of National Day parades.

The recent rise of a rabid nationalism with its rallying cry of “Us First, Them Last” breeds a patriotism that fans up hostility against those not like us. This kind of “patriotism” is the last refuge of scoundrels and fools. Wilfred Owen describes such an unthinking “patriotism” in “Dulce Et Decorum Est” as that “old lie” which seduced millions of young men to believe that it is sweet and dutiful to die for the Fatherland in World War One.

War also sells in the mass media arena. In the poem “War Photograher”, Carol Ann Duffy decribes how a war photograher, with a steady professional grip on his camera, takes excellent pictures of carnage while in conflict-ridden zones: “Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh”. The poet’s choice of a staccato one-word listing of these violent spots serves her purpose, which is to conjure up the fast rattle of rifle shots.

The war photographer does his job calmly while embedded in the violence. Paradoxically, it is in the calm of his rural English darkroom that his hands tremble as he reflects on the “spools of suffering set out in ordered rows” that he will develop into photographs from which his newspaper editor will choose, and the choice will be those pictures which will sell news.

How often have we, in the comfort of our own homes, watched scenes of war carnage on TV, and then, quite nonchalantly, turned back to our plates of nasi lemak, capati or char koay teow? Mass media makes us inured to human suffering because it churns out too many sensational, dehumanising images.

Last, but certainly not least, the commemoration of the Armistice should be an occasion for us to reflect on the power of history and historiography (the writing of history). History should rightly be written from different perspectives, not only from the perspective of the so-called victors. We should read historical accounts from all sides. Was World War One ignited merely by the assassination of a duke in Serbia or did geopolitical imperatives plunge both allied and German forces into this horrendous war?

The last lines of another memorable poem of World War One encapsulate the wistful longing for a loved one who died in the war and the tribute paid to the war dead:

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
and each slow dusk the drawing down of the blinds

There can be no better evocation of both the pain and the resilience of civilians who had to bear such terrible loss than in the last line of this Wilfred Owen poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. On each occasion I teach this poem, I “see” the lonely silhouette of a person at a window pining for a soldier who will never return as dusk falls.

As the Last Post was sounded in commemorative ceremonies worldwide and continue to be sounded at Ypres, may its brave yet plaintive notes urge us to reflect anew on this haunting war and strengthen our resolve for peace.

This piece was first published in the Malay Mail Online.

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