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‘This quintessence of dust’

By Ralph Maraj

T his year marks one hundred years since the outbreak of World War 1. It is an opportunity for reflection as Trinidad and Tobago promises soldiers on every street corner, joining many other countries who find it necessary to be prepared for ‘war’ against forces internal or external in a world becoming increasingly destabilised.
War is the hell that mankind seems doomed to keep repeating, begging the question: is there a fundamental absurdity to human existence? Is armageddon the inevitable outcome of civilisation?
Carnage and anarchy characterised life on earth until about 5,000 years ago when civilisation started emerging from the agricultural settlements that had started some 5,000 years earlier. At least six ancient civilisations emerged bringing some order. Later, the emergence of nation states helped enforce peace within borders and reduce civilian exposure to war, moving some to say the world gradually became more peaceful.
Some even claim the last century was the most peaceful in human history. This is hard to accept. World War 1 started in 1914, involved 65 million soldiers from 30 countries and introduced machine guns, tanks, planes and chemical weapons into warfare, bringing horrific death and destruction. Fought mainly in the trenches, it killed an average 6,000 soldiers every day, ended up killing over nine million and wounding 21 million more and was directly responsible for the death of 16 million people, including poet Wilfred Owen at age 25.
It was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’ but is at the root of the horror that continued in the 20th century. The war had drained the entire world economy and would contribute significantly to the Great Depression. The Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany, sole responsibility for the war and reparations which economist John Maynard Keynes found ‘harsh excessive and counterproductive’. Additionally, as one consequence of the war, Europe experienced a general inflationary period in the 1920s, causing hyperinflation in Germany that destroyed personal savings, produced massive unemployment and increased social unrest. Besides in seeking to marginalise Germany, Western European powers weakened its democratic leaders, rekindled nationalism and the desire to restore German prestige.
This was the facilitative environment into which Adolf Hitler emerged with the Nazis to become Chancellor and establish the Third Reich to replace the fragile Weimar Republic. Twenty years after World War 1, Hitler invaded Poland and started World War 11 which inflicted almost 85 million fatalities, including six million Jews in the Holocaust and introduced nuclear weapons when America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This has been the deadliest conflict in human history. Are we getting more peaceful or better at destroying ourselves?
You would have thought that after 1945 there would at least be a pause. There was some hope in the establishment of the United Nations, especially with permanent members of the Security Council being victors of the war: the US, Soviet Union, UK, China and France. But then came ‘wars of national liberation’ and ‘proxy wars’ from decolonisation and the Cold War respectively, producing bloody conflict in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Indo China.
The ‘peace dividend’ after the Berlin Wall was also an illusion. War returned to Europe with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Not long after, Al Qaedea attacked America on 9/11, the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Arab Spring toppled or challenged—dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East opening the way for the present widening sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias in the Islamic world, driven by the emergence of ISIS which some say is ‘a terrifying challenge to civilisation from a growing body of fanatics as keen as Hitler on controlling the world’.
Will civilisation survive the 21st century? World War I saw the entry for the first time of American forces in Europe. It marked the turning point in the war and the arrival of America as a global military force on which western civilisation has relied to this day for security and the protection of democratic values. But the US is today in retreat, creating a vacuum for the most frightening chaos yet and which threatens every nation on earth. So from homo erectus, two million years ago, to the present, we must prepare for war. It does make you wonder, like Hamlet, about man: ‘how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!...in apprehension how like a god!...The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
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