100 years on, lessons of war are still elusive
At sunset on Sunday, bells will ring in churches, public buildings and at cenotaphs across Canada.
Their sound will mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, when — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — French, British and German leaders met and signed an armistice.
This officially ended the horrific four-year conflict that claimed the lives of more than 16 million people.
But the “war to end all wars” didn’t.
It was just Act 1.
As we contemplate the century that has passed, it is difficult to feel anything but profound sorrow that we don’t seem to be able to learn from history.
Just 21 years after that armistice, the Second World War would come. Four times as destructive, it killed an estimated 60 million people — another 20 million, if you include war-related disease and famine.
Nearly 17 million Russians alone died in this war, more than everyone of any nationality who had been killed in the Great War.
Although there had been genocides before, the 20th century has a special place in history, as modern industrial technology made mass murder easier. Six million Jews were killed in the Nazi Holocaust.
Since 1945, with the advent of nuclear weapons, the conflicts have become smaller in scale — but no less vicious.
The Khmer Rouge massacre of 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s, and the genocide of up to a million people, primarily Tutsi, in Rwanda in 1994, are just two of many in the past 50 years.
Meanwhile, we Canadians focus on things that are easier to take in, such as the latest display of bad manners from Donald Trump or the short supply of legalized pot.
There isn’t much news coverage of the war in Yemen. It’s far away, it’s complicated to explain and people can’t bring themselves to look at those pictures of starving children.
On Sunday evening, retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire will speak at a sold-out Armistice Day event at Kitchener’s Centre In The Square.
Dallaire was the United Nations’ peacekeeping commander in Rwanda in 1994. He watched helplessly as up to a million people were killed in less than four months. The Rwandans didn’t have access to gas chambers, so they hacked their victims with machetes instead. Blood was everywhere. Women were raped, lying in pools of blood, broken bottles between their legs.
Dallaire had repeatedly pleaded for action and backup from United Nations headquarters. But the world’s major powers failed to act or provide him with troops. He was ordered not to intervene.
When he returned to Canada, he was still in hell. He couldn’t switch off what he had seen. He suffered from nightmares, felt isolated from his family and wanted to die.
In his 2016 memoir, “Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Bat- tle with PTSD,” Dallaire described drinking heavily and then cutting himself with a razor.
He later said he had found “an incredibly soothing effect” and a sense of release in the warmth and smell of his own blood.
Back then, we didn’t know what post-traumatic stress disorder was. We understand better now, thanks in part to Dallaire, who has devoted the rest of his life to speaking out against the evil of forcing children to be soldiers and advocating for better care of veterans.
Dallaire is one of the world’s most eloquent and passionate defenders of those who do not turn away from the worst that humans can devise for one another.
Seventy years ago, we were grateful to the soldiers who had protected us from Hitler. They are mostly gone now. World politics has changed. But human evil has not.
For Dallaire and so many others who suffered because they were willing to look into the abyss, we wear the red poppy in sorrow and gratitude.