Why Do We Remember ?

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK<br /><br /><br /><br />

As we approach the centenary of the First World War, also known as The Great War 1914-1918, modern readers may well ask what is the point of marking the various anniversaries of an event that has been referred to as “the seminal tragedy of the 20th Century”?  So many died, so many were scarred for life, so much misery was inflicted, and all to what end?  A little over 20 years later came a second massive war, often viewed as the product of unfinished business from the generation before.

Our impressions of The Great War, passed down in history, literature, film, art, and even pop culture, have distilled over the decades to form a collective memory summed up by futility, waste and horror.  Though these traits become readily apparent in the examination of most conflicts, the First World War is particularly marked by them, and they are made more potent  by an appreciation for the sheer disillusionment of the 1914 generation which initially marched off to join in a glorious adventure.  Capping it all off was the failure of The League of Nations, perhaps the Great War’s sole “gift” to humankind.

Horrible as it was, the First World War’s impact on subsequent history is undeniable, and so while the term “seminal tragedy” is earned, the Great War must also be viewed as a “watershed” event in the emergence of the modern world.  On one side of the conflict stands a political landscape dominated by empires and monarchies which is gone forever. On the other a world of representative democracies and totalitarian states so familiar to the modern eye.  Before the Great War stood social systems unchanged, in some cases for centuries, dominated by class and bound by tradition.  On the opposite side a world more inclined toward social mobility and welfare states.  Perhaps the First World War might best be seen as a catalyst in the emergence of modern times.

We also remember the Great War for the examples of perseverance in the harshest adversity which its study reveals.  The way in which individuals faced up to the grim realities of life and death in the war’s many fronts and theaters seems nearly incomprehensible to many today.  The motivations of those who took part were undoubtedly varied and complex.  They did not have the advantage of foreknowledge through which the modern viewer can filter and contextualize the war, and yet they carried on – perhaps because of, or in spite of the lack of foreknowledge.

The tragedy of the war and the countless victims claimed by the conflict should not be forgotten.  The course of our own times has been indelibly influenced by the events of 1914-1918 and their aftermath, as were the lives of our ancestors, and so we remember.