100 years since the War to End All Wars—when will we ever learn?

The First World War was the greatest calamity ever to strike humanity. The incredible power of technology had come to the game of princes and the result was such a massive and catastrophic loss of life and limb that people across the globe heaved a collective sigh of relief and bells rang out from places of worship across the length and breadth of 100 nations after 11 am on November 11, 1918. The War to End All Wars was finally over.

Such was the scale of the carnage that many believed that human beings must finally have learned the lesson that war in the modern age had finally become unthinkable. It wasn’t.

Before the barbed wire had been coiled and put away and the minefields and surfeit of unused ordinance that burdened humanity sunk into the troughs of the deepest seas, even as the ink was still drying on the signatories to the Treaty of Versailles, the stage was being set to once more set the world on a course to global conflict and the resulting Second World War.

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This was, of course, another massive global conflict that resulted in the loss of millions of lives, thanks to the intersection of modern technology and the monstrous concept of total war where the bulk of those losses were civilian.

Europe lay prostrate once again, its industries devastated beyond even the twisted imagination of a Danté. Humanity began to rebuild and, with the enlightened implementation of the Marshall Plan to rebuild those nations who so recently had been our deadliest enemies, we seemed to be once more on the brink of a lasting peace. So it came to pass.

Yes there were still hundreds of thousands of (largely civilian) deaths to war with each passing year, but the nuclear Sword of Damocles that had been unsheathed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the concept of mutually assured destruction (with the appropriate acronym MAD) to keep the world’s major powers from once again unleashing total war. Like a Mexican standoff with grenades, there would be no winners, only losers.

Still we failed to learn. Global powers continued to duke it out in the game of princes, but now they used proxy pawns, carefully avoiding being drawn too far into direct conflict.

Certainly there were the Korean War and the Vietnam War in which the US and China came in direct (if undeclared) blows, but the other nuclear superpower, the Soviet Union, held back from the brink. Millions of Korean and Vietnamese civilians paid the cost of those conflicts.

On November 11 we will honour those men and women who continue to stand upon the ramparts to defend our nation, our freedom and our democracy. This year, on November 11, we will especially recall the nearly 61,000 Canadians who were killed during the First World War (more if we count those who later succumbed to their wounds) and the further 172,000 who were maimed and wounded in that conflict when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice.

But despite humanity’s repeated failures to realize the dream encompassed in the articles of that Armistice, that dream where the human race will have finally put an end to war, we must never lose sight or hope that one day that dream will be realized. Let us fervently hope that dream will not be realized as we crawl out from under the rubble of global nuclear devastation. For if the lessons of the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, the War in Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that nothing is unthinkable to those who insist on playing the game of princes. The catch phrase of veterans of the past was “never again!”

Canadians have proudly stood for generations as those who work for peace. We are, for the most part, proud of our efforts and our role in peacekeeping throughout the world. Let us not lose hope, let us not break faith with those who have put themselves in harm’s way toward that dream, that goal of a humanity secure in peace and safe from the horrors and ravages of war.

Lest we forget.

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