100 Years of Remembering the Past, But Forgetting the Present

The centenary of the World War I armistice rings hollow in a world still scorched by war. We claim to remember the dead, but we have forgotten the living.
100 Years of Remembering the Past, But Forgetting the Present
"Thousands gather at the Subtreasury Building on Wall Street during Armistice Day, 1918." (New York Times Photo Archive)

Every year, at 11 o’clock in the morning on the 11th day of the 11th month, we observe two minutes of silence to remember those who have died in war. This solemn ritual, dating back to November 11, 1918, marks the moment when the Christian empires of Europe agreed to end the “war to end all wars.” In celebration of this magnificent event, we are enjoined to remember all the remembering we have forgotten to remember, lest we forget. As the 100th annual “festival of remembering” draws to a close and as we look back on a century in which we forgot to end all wars, it is long overdue that we ask what exactly it is that we remember? What is it that we are not to forget? And what, if anything, have we learned?

The First World War was an obscenity from which the world has never recovered, and probably never will. It was the most destructive outbreak of barbarism in human history. This is true on its own terms: the war claimed an estimated 37 million military and civilian casualties and was characterized by a chilling disregard for human life.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British army lost 60,000 men. At Gallipoli, a year earlier, tens of thousands of men had been sent to their deaths for the sole purpose of wasting enemy ammunition. The atrocities of this war are too numerous to recount, but in the spirit of remembrance it is worth remembering that every single one was carried out to safeguard of the vanity of the elites who controlled the European empires, to coddle the egos of men who had essentially decided it was their right to plunge the world into madness.

The scale of the catastrophe moves into yet sharper focus when we consider the delayed effects of the war to end all wars: the botched treaty at Versailles and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, the Second World War, the “final solution to the Jewish question,” the creation of the USSR and so on. This was a period of abject futility, but is this what we remember?

Those who attended the remembrance ceremonies this November would have been forgiven for detecting an air not of regret or even of remembering the fallen. On the contrary, they will have been treated to a celebration of the policies that caused the deaths of the remembered. In 2014, British Prime Minister David Cameron compared the centenary of the beginning of the so-called “Great War” to Queen Elizabeth’s “diamond jubilee celebrations.” Last month, current premier Theresa May said:

“[The First World War Hall of Memory was] built to honor the sacrifice of the men and women in that terrible conflict. Inscribed within it are some familiar words: ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’ We do remember them. We remember the young men who left their homes to fight and die in the horror of the trenches . . . we remember the selflessness of a remarkable generation whose legacy is the freedom we enjoy today.”

So far no journalist has asked Prime Minister May exactly which of our modern freedoms we would not have now if her predecessors had not thrown all those lives away and paved the way for the rise of Hitler and Stalin. We forgot to ask.

The uninterrupted series of wars since 1918 ought to be enough to indicate that we do not indeed remember, a fact that a glance at the world in our own time brings home with a sobering clarity. As we bow our heads and furrow our brows in the spirit of remembering and of learning, we might consider it a better use of our memory to remember those who are dying now.

The war in Syria is now well into its 8th year and conflict ravages the Democratic Republic of Congo and other forgotten corners of the globe.

Yemen is besieged by a Saudi-led military coalition that is killing millions through not only airstrikes and a blockade, but in what many have called the worst famine on earth in 100 years. 17 million people are at risk from this famine, including at least 3.3. million children and pregnant or lactating women. Every day at least 130 Yemenis die. Meanwhile, Theresa May’s government has forgotten to remember to stop selling weapons to the Saudi regime.

At 11 o’clock on Sunday we stood in silence for two minutes of hollow remembering, to think of men whose lives were idly discarded in France, in Turkey, in Flanders 100 years ago. But what of those who suffer from the scourge of war today? What of those who fight and die in the trenches of our time? What of the people of Yemen, whose misery stands as a reminder of our refusal to remember the present, of our failure to learn from the past?

They are a monument to our forgetting. They shall grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall weary them, and the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in morning, we have forgotten them.