The Independent has posted an article about the passing of World War I veteran Harry Patch. He lived up to 111, and was the last living participant in the 1914-1918 war. It has some interesting insights about WWI and other matters.
The author, Bruce Anderson, begins by commeting on the preceding 1800s, saying that it was:
...a period of remarkable improvement in almost every area. By 1900, the world had been transformed. Though problems remained, it seemed that the West could look forward to steadily increasing prosperity, stability and freedom...
The 19th century really seems to have been remarkable in many ways: bold scientists daring to go beyond all limitations of the period's knowledge, exploring at large, both the microcospic and macroscopic realms, and developing the principles of everything that marks our times, from computers to airplanes; challenging thinkers breaking down all taboos and conventions, questioning religion, slavery, education, women and children's rights; artists revolutionizing painting, music, literature, theater and all the other arts, creating masterpieces, many of which are unsurpassed.
It seems like an exciting time, but as the period that came right afterwards showed, the changes were superficial, like stirred water raising the mud that lies at the bottom. The mud came to the surface and showed how much dirt was deposited on the floor, and the process is still going on.
1914-45 was the worst epoch in history since the Dark Ages, and there is a hideous paradox. We only recovered, avoiding a third world war which would have finished off most of European civilisation, because of the threat of nuclear war, leading to a dark age from which there could be no recovery. That threat is still with us – and to think that in the Nineteenth Century, men believed in moral progress.
Well, there has been progress. Only the blind pessimists don't see it. However so much dirt has been swept for millenia under the carpet, it's no wonder things don't seem that better at first glance as the process has only recently started.
Besides people never really changed. Take it for instance the chronicles of the Roman era, 2000 years ago, which show that people lived pretty much the same way we do, thought the same, made the same mistakes, etc. One can say that that's because it's "human nature" to be lewd, corrupt, proud, selfish, and all that, but if that were so, there wouldn't be people who aren't like that, or who manage to learn better in time.
What often happens is that people don't dare to acknowledge their flaws and fight them, with the same zeal they would fight for a job promotion, or the same persistance they reserve for playing the lottery. While people don’t realize the damages these feelings cause, and fight to eliminate it from their minds, we’ll still have wars, violence and all the evils they engender.
When talking about our times, Anderson raises an important point:
But it would be easier to take pride in such an event if we could also feel proud of the treatment of today's volunteers, who have earned the right to be numbered with the men of the trenches, in the long British muster-roll of glory and heroism.
There are hundreds of soldiers of our present wars, who are getting back home with grave mental and social problems. Such is the case with British Lance Corporal Beharry, who earlier this year in an interview (check article too) also for The Independent called attention to his own adaptation problems and that of his colleagues, who have a hard time adjusting to normal life after facing the horrors of war.
The health system and many members of society in the countries that have sent soldiers to the Middle East wars are unprepared to dealing with the delicate and complex cases of those men and women, and end up making things even worse for them.
Despite the terrible wars of our time that are shattering the lives of many of our countrymen, the worst ones aren't fought in a far-off desert, miles away from our homes. There's a silent war going on in our cities, in our families and even in ourselves.
The legacy of darkness of the first half of the 20th century is threatening us again, and we must not let it influence us nor take it lightly. The examples of bravery and moral strength like that of late Harry Patch, who refused to shot to kill his enemies during the war, must be remembered as proof that we can be better than what we are if only we put our wills to it, and as a consequence, the world will be better.
Just as the efforts of the 1800s' visionaries haven't been lost, like their dreams of ending slavery, emancipating women, promoting literacy and worker's rights, but instead they are already partially accomplished.