Wednesday, June 22, 2016

What History and Anniversaries Show Us

75 years ago today, an army numbering four million men, mostly Germans and Romanians, crossed the Russian border in a pre-dawn invasion along a front measuring 1,800 miles. It was a three-pronged attack directed against the cities of Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow. Despite Napoleon's failure in 1812, Hitler was confident. He would spend and take as many lives as was necessary to win, but he lost. He lost entire armies, and eventually he lost the war. It was called Barbarossa. When we tell the tale in our history books we rarely mention the names of common soldiers whose actions and deaths paved the way for victory or defeat. Hitler did this, Stalin did that. Zhukov did this, von Paulus did that. If it weren't for Tito's rebellion in Yugoslavia, everything would have been different. But the mass graves remain unnamed. Ten days less than 25 years earlier, July 1, 1916, was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The slaughter that day alone was incomprehensible. Yet it was just one day in a war lost in the trenches that went on and on, and on. The dead screamed out but no one listened. Oh, they heard the screams for a time, but got used to the sound, like tinnitus. It will be the centennial of that horrid event in just a few days. June 25 marks the 140th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, commonly known as Custer's Last Stand, wherein one commander's arrogance and impatience cost the lives of hundreds under his command. There is a battle to remember for every day of the year. I have spent my life in quiet optimism, believing, as Hendrick Wilhelm van Loon wrote a hundred years ago, that Progress does happen. It comes incrementally, but it comes, and with it we evolve as a species. In the face of everything – in the face of history – I still want to believe. But the same drums beat. The same young men get fired up and ready to fight. The same old men still think that killing others is more than okay, it is righteous. The winds of war are always blowing. The fields of death are always waiting. Wise men rail, poets lament, mothers weep. It doesn't seem to matter. Arm yourselves. It's still legal to do so. Prepare for the apocalypse: it is of your own making. But count me out.

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