World War I was the historical event that first drew me to the past, and one that I have never ceased to be interested in. Once I learned that my Dad's grandfather had emigrated from Germany, but ended up getting shell shock fighting in the American army, my interest was only more deepened. Once I was a grad student I wanted to do a dissertation project related to its cultural history, but realized that I had nothing new to add, and that I would be happier having it as an amateur fixation.
Ever since I was a child, I have thought of this day as Armistice Day, not Veterans Day (partially because it's never been a day off for me at any of my jobs.) When I first learned of the Armistice going into effect on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of the year (an oddly meaningful alliteration), I tried to imagine how the soldiers would have felt coming out of their trenches and confronting a fundamentally altered world. As my studies in history deepened, I began to see the war as a kind of germinating catastrophe for the 20th century. I realize this is a rather mundane observation, but it struck me pretty hard when I was a teenager. The horrors of the Great War only served to spawn another, worse conflict. Beyond World War II, the war's redrawing of borders led to ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and have contributed to current instability in Iraq, Syria and Palestine. It legitimized authoritarian, extremist governments and gave nationalism, that scourge of humanity, a big shot of steroids.
When I meditate on Armistice Day, I tend to meditate on the catastrophes of the 20th century writ large. This Armistice Day, I am beginning to think that the catastrophes of the 21st century may rival those of the bloody century just passed. The news about the environment is extremely disheartening, we are truly living on borrowed time. The scarcity provoked by our dying earth will only stoke conflict around the world. While I am no fan of American imperial hyperpower, we seem to be transitioning from a global Pax Americana to a renewal of the kind of multipolar system that led to the First World War. All the while unfettered, all-consuming global capitalism has never been more powerful. The wealthy are piling up unprecedented caches of lucre, profiting from the earth's destruction and unwilling to change their ways.
Perhaps I'm thinking this way in light of the recent anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall. I was 14 at the time in 1989, and overjoyed that the Cold War nuclear standoff was finally broken. I felt such optimism about the future, and as I came of age in the 1990s, there were awful events like Rwanda and Bosnia, but also the sense that global conflict was on the wane. A quarter of a century later, things have changed. America has waged perpetual war since 2001 with no end in sight. Politics in this country has been divisive to the point of complete dysfunction. In this environment where our political institutions have been discredited, Americans trust the police and military most. That will not end well, especially with the world set to inflict turmoil.
On this Armistice Day I am thinking forward, not back. We like to think that the trenches are a historical artifact, that the horrors of the 20th century are behind us. I am afraid that in another century our descendants will have different events to mourn.