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At the Going Down of the Sun

At eleven on Nov. 11, 1908, the guns fell silent. The Great War, the War to End All Wars was over. Millions of dead, enormous destruction, economic devastation. For what? Today we are still fighting that war. Armistice Day, 11/11 is supposed to be celebrated worldwide. Especially in the sphere of influence of the old British Empire, Poppy Day is commemorated with veterans and many others wearing a poppy.

The starting lines of John Mcrae's haunting poem: "In Flanders' fields the poppies grow among the crosses, row on row..." evoke memories of the great mausoleum at Thiepval where the names of 26,000 men, whose remains were never found, are inscribed. And as far as the eye can see from that memorial, small cemeteries dot the countryside. 

Field of poppies. Photo Diego Torres,

And for what? The war started because the Concert of Europe, the agreement between great powers to resolve conflicts by peaceful negotiation and not war had broken down. The millions who fought for “...the great lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori" (meaning, “It is sweet and good to die for the fatherland”) are commemorated by politicians, but what was achieved? Men and women who survived were pushed aside and ignored, promises were not kept.

The present dragging conflict in the Middle East results directly from secret dealings between men in suits. T E Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, warned that the negotiations around the breaking up of the Turkish Empire would lead to endless conflict, but the warnings of a man who had fought on the ground were ignored.

The international system cobbled together after World War 1, the League of Nations, collapsed, leading to World War Two. Again, millions were sacrificed to the Fatherlands as defined by politicians. Again, incomplete resolutions created an international system that kept some sort of peace but is on the verge of breakdown. 

Those who served under fire, who stared death in the face in service of political ideology and vested interests have a deep cynicism when confronted by calls to patriotism. All soldiers, whether attacking the Warsaw ghetto or the residential areas of Gaza, probably believe they are fighting the enemies of their people. After all, the leaders, politicians, school teachers and religious leaders say so. 

But on this day we honor those who fell in the wars, in the words of Laurence Binyon: 

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

And we owe it to them to ensure that their sacrifices were made, not in service of narrow interests, but in the interests of common humanity. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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