Forgetting World War I

I would like to believe that the current museum exhibits at the New-York Historical Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art would keep World War I in our minds, but, sadly, we’ve forgotten.  Its veterans are dead. Monuments ignored.  Other wars, especially World War II, loom larger in our imaginations and on screen.   The tragedy of forgetting World War I affects our understanding of world events today, as so many are inextricably linked to events we struggle to understand today.

When we forget World War I, we forget that we stand on its corpses today.

Why should we remember this war from a hundred years ago?  If you are Turkish, Greek or Armenian, the first answer may be in the fact that the Ottoman Empire existed.  The Ottoman Empire grew out of the Seljuk Empire, which dazzled the world with its art and arms just after Year 1000.  Turks received the blame for causing the First Crusade.  They invaded the city that could never be taken, Constantinople, and, well, took it.  They invaded and administered Greece and the Balkans.  While leaders such as Suleiman hammered out treaties with the King of France, other Europeans reacted with fear and indignation, as the Ottomans were quite literally at the gates of Western Europe.

In the nineteenth century, they provided Orientalists with endless fantasies of opulent harims and exotic Grand Tour destinations, some of which were relatively close to their European homes.  The “East” began in Eastern Europe and while Greece won its independence, many of the provinces we call Greece today were still Ottoman.  My grandmother, who died in 1986, was born under the age of the Ottoman Empire.  Ottoman supremacy also provided another issue still with us today:  where does Europe begin and end?  Is Constantinople, now Istanbul, considered “West” as it clearly sits on the European continent?  Who speaks for the “Western” religions in an Ottoman world?  When they revolt (and they certainly did, with Greece leading the way), do other countries support them?  What does it mean, exactly, to be “Western” and “European”?

And the Jews?  Jews were subjects of Ottoman rule, and the territory we now call Israel was Ottoman controlled.  When the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the British Mandate took on rule of the area, the question of Israel came to the table.  Ask most pro-Palestine supporters about the Ottoman Empire’s breakup, and most likely, they will stare back in ignorance.   The co-existence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Ottoman world,  the loose control over the Palestine-Israel territory before the war, the loss of the Ottoman Empire after the war, and the British Mandate are key to understanding the current situations, and yet, they are left out of discussion.

And Armenians?  Adolf Hitler issued this now-famous statement just before his Poland invasion:  ”

It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me. I have issued the command – and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad – that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Turkey doesn’t speak for the Armenians, as an estimated 1.5 million were exterminated during the War and Turkey denies its action.  The Armenian Genocide, like the Scottish ethnic cleansing at British hands in the 18th century, set the stage for not only the Holocaust, but for the genocides that still exist today.  That Turkey can escape without recrimination for its actions against Armenians, and later, Greeks, opens the door to all countries hell bent on ethnic cleansing and genocide.

We’ve forgotten the Ottomans, but we’ve also forgotten pandemic.  We create doomsday scenarios regarding the anti-vax movement, but forget the effect that the flu had on the world.   The estimates are staggering:  20 to 50 million people dead worldwide in 1918.  The number of those sickened by the flu reaches 500 million by some estimates.  The trenches became incubators for the spread of this deadly disease, so the soldier who survive the horrors of war now had to face the horrors of illness.

We’ve forgotten horror. We’ve forgotten suffering.  World War I means redrawn maps, destruction of Empire (not just the Ottoman but the Russian, Qing,  and Austro-Hungarian bit the dust during its years), the humiliation of Germany, reevaluation of gender and race, the rise of the Big Three (England, France USA), new technology in warfare, rise of Communism, and — who could forget?— the mystique of the Red Baron, Mata Hari, and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.  But have we forgotten, in our age of drones and battles that never reach the television screens, the horror of war?  John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields after the funeral of a friend.  In part:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

This poem was used later for propaganda and recruitment, whereas its original intent was to not bring more young men to die but to commemorate those who lost their youth.  No one used Wilfred Owen’s work for recruitment:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.  How right and sweet it is to die for the Fatherland.  Ottoman Turks died for their fatherland.  Armenians, Greeks and Jews died for theirs.  Soldiers who survived the horror Owen described ended up dying of the flu  in overcrowded and unsanitary hospitals.

Horace wrote these lines during the birth of another Empire doomed to fall:  the Roman.   We may not have forgotten the Roman Empire, but we’ve certainly forgotten the reasons for its decline.

And do we remember Wilfred Owen?  What happened to him?  He was 22 when he enlisted in the armed forces during the War.  He died in battle at age 25.  Forgotten today, but remembered here…only to be forgotten once more.



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