The Great War began one hundred years ago this very summer. But while the 70th anniversary of D-Day made headlines for a week and more across the nation, our memory, when it comes to the First World War, may as well not exist at all.
The Great War claimed between twenty and sixty-five million lives, civilian and military combined. Perhaps it is because the Americans did not enter the war until 1917 that we do not remember it with as much fervor as we remember the beaches of Normandy. Yet the fact is that while World War One changed our nation and our world, this summer, on the one hundredth anniversary of its outbreak, few Americans have any real sense of why this war occurred, when it occurred, how many people died, in what ways our country was changed, or for what cause so many soldiers were willing to more or less commit suicide by enlisting. Our journalists seem themselves unaware of this anniversary.
Normandy evokes our memory, but Gallipoli does not. Okinawa does, but Verdun does not. The trenches are some cloaked memory of ages passed. No one remembers the toxic gasses that, for four horrible years, became weapons. With the last of those who killed and died in this war, our memory of these events fell away. Will the same happen for the Second World War? The third, however far or near that may be?
The great and terrible history of blood and iron is washed by the slow passing of years, and once washed that history is seldom restored to memory. It is the fate of all wars big and small, from the Crusades to Napoleon. Historians can point to cities on a map. But that is not what war looks like. That is not what war feels like. Wars have a greater impact on our lives than changing the shade of our country on a map from one color to another, but only if we make an effort to keep history alive, to learn from our mistakes, and to heed the lessons our elders would teach us.
I have made an effort to study war and to ask my elders about their memories, and all the impressions I have of World War One are negative ones. Ten thousand men dying in a single charge up a hill in Turkey for no damn reason. Men here in the States thrown in jail or tried for treason against their country because they dared to ask why this war was being fought. A great-uncle of mine who didn't sleep the whole night through for a single night of his life after suffering neurological gas damage at the age of eighteen, and who began to lose his sanity in his young thirties. French and German troops calling over to one another's trenches to tell the opposing side when they would be firing, just to make sure they didn't keep killing each other until no one was left-- because everyone in those trenches knew that this war was senseless. I've read the statistics in academic journals when I was earning my major in history. I remember browsing through regiments whose death rates were above four hundred percent-- that meant that the entire regiment had been killed and replaced on five separate occasions. It is our duty to remember all of this and more, or else we are letting anywhere between twenty and sixty-five million die in vain.
We cannot let this anniversary go unmarked. We should not let it pass in silence. If we have one thing to learn from our reflection, we should learn that peace is sacred, and we should cherish that peace for our own selves and for everyone around the world. Our peace should be as loud as their war, or else their war was truly for nothing.
August first is the 100th anniversary of the day when Germany declared war on Russia and the First World War formally began. On that day, I challenge everyone to share a story about war and peace. Remembering one of mankind's greatest blunders, let us learn our greatest lesson, and let us remember it well enough that it may also be remembered by those who follow us.
Those who survived the bombs and the guns and the gas and the tanks dreamed of a world where peace endures forever. We can try to build that world, or we can let this anniversary pass us by already forgotten.
Matthew R. Bishop is a journalist and novelist. He is the C.E.O. of World Report News, a conflict prevention world news company launching in 2015, and also writes humanist fantasy and antiwar allegories.