COLUMN: Reflecting on the terrible costs of war

The message of Remembrance Day is still needed today

It has been a long time since the two global wars of the 20th century ended.

The First World War concluded a century ago, on Nov. 11, 1918, and the Second World War has been over for 73 years, since Sept. 2, 1945.

The veterans of First World War have all passed on now and the youngest of the remaining Second World War veterans are in their 90s.

In the past, they were the ones who could tell the stories about the war to the next generations. Their presence reminded us that wars in other parts of the world affected us right here.

But today, there are far fewer veterans than just a few years ago. When the last Second World War veterans have passed on, will this message be lost?

For many years, Remembrance Day has been a sombre, solemn observance. It has been a time to mourn the losses and to remind ourselves that wars like these must never be repeated.

This message is still needed today. If the devastation is ever forgotten, we risk repeating these parts of our history.

Consider the effects of the two global wars.

First World War, originally known as the Great War, was described as “the war to end all wars.” The scope of this war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, is hard to comprehend.

More than 70 million military personnel were mobilized during these four war years. There were nine million military deaths and seven million civilian deaths.

These deaths do not include the genocides in the Ottoman Empire during and after the war, nor do they include the deaths resulting from the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War that followed.

And the 1918 influenza epidemic, which occurred during the war and was spread in part by troop movements, resulted in another 50 million deaths worldwide.

Then, two decades after this war had ended, the world was at war once again. Second World War lasted for six years, from 1939 to 1945.

Nazi Germany, under Adolf Hitler, represented some of the worst of human behaviour. The Holocaust, with its total of 17 million deaths, including six million Jews, represents a level of cruelty difficult if not impossible to comprehend.

The death toll from this war is estimated at 24 million military deaths and 49 million civilian deaths. These numbers do not include those who were injured or otherwise affected by war.

But history is not simply lists of dates and places. Wars are more than lists of battle statistics.

The stories are deeply personal. Each of those who died had family and friends who cared about them. Each death represents a permanent loss.

The massive devastation of these wars is minimized every time an unpopular world leader, or even a demanding workplace supervisor, is referred to as “another Hitler.”

The atrocities are downplayed when protestors wave Nazi flags and symbols, as has happened on more than one occasion in recent years.

The cost in human lives is trivialized when novels or films limit war stories to images of happy, confident soldiers emerging from battle without so much as a scratch.

It is important to continue to observe Remembrance Day today and to reflect the losses during the war years.

Or, to use a phrase from the Royal Canadian Legion’s website, “Together, we observe a moment of silence to mark the sacrifice of the many who have fallen in the service of their country, and to acknowledge the courage of those who still serve.”

And it is important to work towards peace and to take measures to make sure another conflict of this magnitude does not ever happen again.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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