Milestones are time to reflect on mistakes
This has been, and will continue to be, quite a year for 50-year celebrations.
There’s probably a term for these, something more pleasing to the ear than “half-centennial,” but I do not know it and am too lazy to look it up.
(Which, in the era of Google, is immensely lazy indeed.)
The year 1963 was, among much else, a crucial one in the civil rights movement. Most famously, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. held much of the nation spellbound with his “I have a dream” speech on Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C.
On Feb. 11 in London, a four-man beat group recorded its first long-play album, all in a single day. These clever lads called themselves The Beatles. They had some success later.
And of course the best-known event of the entire year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22.
The publicity for the anniversary of that tragedy will be considerable.
This torrent of reminiscing has reminded me of another milestone, one which arrives in 2014.
That year — and specifically, July 28 — marks one century since the First World War began.
This, of course, puts the event beyond the living memory of almost everyone who’s around today.
(And even those rare methuselahs would have been just kids, and thus unlikely to have been following geopolitical events with any great enthusiasm.)
Yet a compelling case can be made — indeed, many historians have made it — that the First World War was the most significant event of the 20th century.
Many of the defining characteristics of that century — chief among them the nuclear age and the Cold War — are today linked more closely with the Second World War.
But their origins date to the earlier conflict.
Beyond the obvious chronological connection — you can’t have a second world war without a first — the historical record shows that the two wars are in effect one long fight, two bloody stanzas separated by a 21-year intermission during which no grievances were settled, and another major one was sown and bore its deadly fruit.
It is no coincidence, certainly, that the cast of characters was much the same in the two wars, the major differences being that Italy switched sides in the Second World War and Japan joined the Axis (what were known as the Central Powers in the First World War).
Even casual students of history understand that Adolf Hitler — the architect, as it were, of the Second World War — was in effect a prisoner of the First.
Not only did he fight in the 1914-18 war, but the whole of his monomaniacal life after the armistice was driven by his hatred for the punitive terms imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty of 1919.
The sequence of monumental events which happened during, or soon after, the First World War seem to us, at such a distance of time, as inevitable, neatly laid out as they are in the chapters of our history books.
Yet we can’t know whether the Russian revolution, the seed of the Cold War, would have happened in 1917, or indeed at all, had that country not suffered through the calamity of the Eastern Front during the previous three years.
And, as mentioned, it is hard to imagine that, without the First World War, a minor artist from Austria would have been able, by sheer force of his charisma and psychosis, to unleash the greatest military conflict in the world’s history.
I’m sure the First World War centennial will get into the news.
But I doubt it will garner anything like the attention given to, say, King’s landmark speech.
This would hardly come as a surprise; a century is an awfully long time.
And in some ways the First World War seems even older than it actually is. There were a lot more horses than trucks, the soldiers carried rifles that had more in common with a musket than an M-16, and the airplanes were about as technologically advanced, by today’s terms, as a push lawnmower.
Perhaps most important, America’s role in the First World War, though significant, came late in the conflict, after France, Germany, Britain and Russia had squandered much of an entire male generation.
America’s experience in the Second World War was rich in iconic events and place names. “Pearl Harbor” and “D-Day” and “Iwo Jima” continue to resonate down through the decades.
By contrast, “Belleau Wood” and “The Meuse-Argonne” seem as foreign as, well, France itself.
Perhaps it’s just as well.
I don’t see that we need to use the Somme or Verdun to remind ourselves of how inhumane humans can be. Sadly, we can use more recent disasters to illustrate the point.
Still and all, 100 years after the guns of August blasted away the notion of war as a gentlemanly pursuit, we might do well to pause briefly to acknowledge that some mistakes carry greater consequences than we could ever conceive at the time.
Jayson Jacoby is editor