The World Is Getting Better
Today marks one hundred years passed since the end of the World War I, known in its time as “The Great War.” This moniker was not given jovially. The war was a great and terrible one for the European psyche. Within in its first month, a million men had died. The cream of the new Twentieth Century’s youth was destroyed. These people would go on to to be remembered in the words of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway as The Lost Generation, referring not only to the millions slain in battle but to scars such loss left on the survivors and their families, which led to lives of aimlessness and confusion that carried on into the Roaring Twenties.
While World War II would see bloodshed on a greater scale, World War I remembrance evokes a greater melancholy. It was the first war to utilize the industrial might of this era, and the high casualties wrought by its machine guns and artillery shells took even the most seasoned commanders by shock and surprise. When it finally ended, as all wars eventually do, few came out of it feeling as though they had won anything, another reason why this generation felt lost. The greatest economic disaster in history followed, and the war’s imperfect conclusion laid the foundation for World War II. By all accounts, it seemed as if nothing was accomplished in this war.
In spite of all of that, we have made progress. The world, especially the part where most of World War I’s battles took place, has matured and improved. Just consider this. There are people alive today who were born, in Europe, under a system of absolute monarchy. Many of them did not enjoy human rights, particularly if they were not German, Austrian, Hungarian, or Russian. Now they live out their last days in not only a free but a democratic society.
Europe is no longer a hodge-podge of paranoid, rivaling powers ready to blow. Europe is almost considered a single entity, especially in the context of the European Union. These nations no longer fight each other. They trade and travel together and enjoy each other’s culture. If you were to tell someone that this would be Europe today a century ago, you would likely have not been believed.
The principle of self-determination that emerged from this conflict, that finally ended Continental imperialism, spread across the globe, providing an argument for the independence of Europe’s colonies. These societies now enjoy greater freedom and prosperity than they did under the thumb of Europe. The arc of history, as Martin Luther King put it, bends toward justice.
Many who read this will rightly observe that not all is well in the world. The former colonies still suffer poverty, disease, and corruption at higher rates than in West. Even if we narrow the focus to Europe, the success of Brexit in recent years appears to stand as a refutation that we are progressing toward democratic unity. The intent here is not to ignore these matters, merely to understand them as they fall in our grander timeline.
The flaws of today, real as they are, do not mean the trend is reversing. Brexit was a setback, a major one. Even so, setback is still a setback. It assumes the continuation, in the long term, of more dominant forces. World War I itself was a setback, not the norm. It was the bubble bursting from unresolved tensions that laid between European nations and even within them. These were tensions between German and Frenchman, between white man and brown man, between aristocrat and commoner, tensions that, as bloody and violent as they came out to be, are nearly non-existent today by comparison. Amazingly, there was and remains little motivation for revenge in the aftermath of such a crisis. In essence, the response to a setback is just as important as the setback itself.
When we look at Brexit, it was an hour where human beings wavered in their prudence and principles. Nevertheless, the error was fast-learned, resulting in the UK’s Labour Party enjoying its largest comeback since 1945, the election that disempowered Churchill. In France, we saw the emergence of a new, populist coalition under Emmanuel Macron that rebuffed the far-right allure of Marine Le Pen. Here in the United States, Americans have parried the vice of Donald Trump by giving the House of Representatives back to the Democrats.
Mistakes are inevitable. Human progress is not a straight, unimpeded line. This is why the arc of history only bends toward justice. We make bad decisions today just as our leaders did in the First World War. Nevertheless, the mistakes of the few provide for the wisdom of the many. Mankind learns and, after dusting off, and continues forward. Brexit is an unfortunate aberration, but it — as even all wars must eventually do — will end.
As we look back on the last century, I ask that you not submit to pessimism. Consider the world of the battered soldier emerging from the trenches on that cold November 11, 1918 and the world as we know it today in 2018. Consider all that has improved. Now, consider the world as it will be a century from today. I think you will see that, as long as we remember the past while appreciating the present, a bright future is before us.
There is a plain of dirt and sand
That once was green and lively land,
Whose beauty now is all concealed
By scars of war that went unplanned.
Now take a look, as silence hangs;
Take in the lack of deadly bangs,
For while the strife has come to yield
Inside we hear our quakes and pangs.
What do we now? We are perplexed,
For we found custom in the next,
And our foes too, who stand revealed,
Are by this dizziness annexed.
Take off your helmets by the straps,
And have a meal in town with chaps.
Observe the sprout, not far afield,
As all will heal with time’s elapse.