This past Friday went by a lot of names: Armistice Day, in much of Europe; Veterans Day, in the US. Back home in Australia, and here in Canada, it was Remembrance Day. In every case, it marked 98 years since Europe descended into the madness of the Great War. It took much of the world and some 20 million lives with it.
Commemorating war is one of those essential things that a nation builds its cultural identity around. But most of us were privileged enough to born in a time and place where violent conflict is an abstract thing that happens to other people. So to try and make the tragedy of war hit home, we usually try and talk about it in terms of small-scale events. We talk about the sacrifice of the individuals who left, served, and died; kids who bravely made The Ultimate Sacrifice. We make war personal.
But this narrative of The Ultimate Sacrifice doesn’t work for me. By focussing on stories of the tragic heroes of our past, it assumes any one person would have made a difference in war, ignoring that almost all individuals died almost completely in vain. In this way, it is a myth that tries to make death meaningful after-the-fact.
In addition, celebrating our nations’ sacrificial lambs distracts us from the real cost of war: what we sacrificed. What we as a species strugglingtoday with enormous challenges requiring incredible solutions, gave up by sending a generation to hell in 1914; and what we lose every time we repeat that mistake.
We are told these people died for us. However, I think that their deaths held us back. And we’re still paying the price.
The early 20th century was a time of brilliant innovation and scientific revolutions. The periodic table of elements had finally been completed, giving chemistry a launching-off point for bold new discoveries; quantum physics was revealing that solid matter and light were actually one-and-the-same; and we were about to realise that the re-discovery of the work of an obscure Austrian monk had just revealed the fundamental code of all life – the gene.
Scientific progress thrives in environments like this, where ideas and technologies continuously bounce and build off each other, and one discovery begets the next at an ever-increasing rate. But this perpetual-motion machine of innovation is also extremely fragile to the slightest malfunction. And when war broke out on July 27th, 1914, those who were to be the young innovators and leaders of a new century were now called on to serve and fight. It was like a record scratch across the culture.
This didn’t just put the pace of scientific discovery on hold for a few years. Braking the machine of innovation while it was still accelerating meant that the consequences would ripple out for decades to come. This is what I feel when I think of history’s great wars: what could have been if we didn’t periodically lose our minds and turn entire countries against each other? What would the world look like today if we hadn’t burned the books of some of the 20th century’s brightest minds?
Tomorrow, I’d like to look at one of these minds. They weren’t a world-striding genius, or the inventor of a brilliant new technology. They were just a very good scientist, like so many others. But it’s precisely their slightly-above-averageness which makes their story so interesting, and tragic, to me.