Poppy Field

My thoughts and reflections related to Veterans Day, and on war in general, have not changed much since the last time I shared them. This year’s post will not be any less somber, however: as the one hundredth anniversary of the end of history’s first (but sadly not last) “Great War”, the commemorations are especially solemn and reflective.

To mark this grim centenary of the First World War, an independent project called Poppy Field was launched to visualize just how devastating this conflict was — a reminder we sadly never need enough of, given how many other horrific conflicts have transpired since the “war to end all wars”.

Using the opportunity to highlight the brutality and tragedy of war as a whole, the project moves beyond WWI to show every conflict that has every occurred in the 20th century onward, from the lesser-known civil conflicts of Colombia and the Philippines, to the present strife in Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic (notice how most of these wars tend to occur within states rather than between them).

The infographic is as beautiful as it is informative, creatively displaying the length, fatality, and location of each recorded war through the use of stylized poppies (the flower became a symbol of commemoration because it was among the first plants to emerge from Europe’s devastated battlefields after WWI, with its blood-red color and resilient yet delicate nature evoking war).

screenshot-poppyfield.org 2014-11-11 13-00-35

There are several patterns to note here. As mentioned before, most wars have become “internal” in nature — usually fought between governments and rebels, among different ethnic or religious groups, or between breakaway regions and a central power; tellingly, these types of conflicts are especially common in post-colonial Africa and Asia, a legacy of ancient grievances combined with the arbitrary borders that ignored such histories and diversities imposed by European powers.

It also seems that wars have become more frequent since the mid-20th century, although comparatively less deadly than the two great wars that dominated the earlier half (and that for most people serve as a common point of comparison, despite their anomalous nature in terms of scale). Modern wars also appear to last much longer, often drawing out into what are known as “low intensity” or “fourth-generation ” conflicts, in which the lines are blurred between civilians and combatants, and fighting is conducted in such a scope as to become normalized.

In any case, war’s every changing nature in terms of tactics and characteristics does little to change the awful human cost. Looking at these beautiful poppies and the data attached to each of them, it is easy to forget that they represents millions of full, individual lives snuffed out just this past 114 years alone. Especially from this physical and psychological distance.

Brief Reflections on a Holocaust Execution

Execution of Jews near Ivanhorod by German Einsatzgruppe during World War II. A woman is attempting to protect a child with her own body just before they are fired on with rifles at close range. This now iconic photograph was mailed from the Eastern Front to Germany and intercepted by a member of the Home Army Polish resistance.

British journalist Robert Fisk declared it “one of the most impressive and persuasive images of the Nazi Holocaust.” It was featured in numerous books, and at photo-exhibits both in Poland and Germany, as “precious and terrible evidence” of “the Nazi cruelties in Eastern Europe.” It’s disturbing to think that this horrific tragedy was but a small fraction of the atrocities that were going on throughout the duration of the war.

I wonder what is going through the minds of not only the victims, but their murderers; what kind of a person could take human life this easily? What state of mind would you have to be to do something so heinous, especially if you have no prior history of such cruelty (as many such men didn’t)? How does one not pause at the sight of a mother shielding her child? If the perpetrators survived the war, how did they go through the rest of their lives? Did they rationalize these actions, eventually regret them, or tried to forget?

It’s difficult to come to grips with how normal people are capable of such remarkable evil given the right circumstances. Most genocides and other mass-scale injustices require the participation or tacit approval of many people, far more than could be deemed insane or criminal. It’s disturbing how relatively easy it is for certain societies to acquiesce or take part in barbarity they couldn’t previously concede to. It’s definitely something to keep in mind.

 

Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life

“Death and Life”, by Gustav Klimt. Begun in 1908 and completed in 1916.

This painting is unique in that it portrays death with a sense of hope and acceptance — instead of feeling threatened by the figure of death, the humans seem unconcerned. Even the personification of death doesn’t seem particularly menacing, comparatively speaking.

Klimt was near the end of his life at the time — he would pass away two years later — and the painting has been interpreted as reflecting his acceptance of mortality. Indeed, he chose to depict moments of pleasure, beauty, youth, and serenity among his subjects.

Casualties of the First World War

Although long overshadowed by the far more destructive Second World War, it was World War I (then known as the Great War) that first gave humanity a bloody taste of large-scale, industrialized warfare. Indeed, the unresolved conflicts of the First World War is what largely gave rise to the second.

All that aside, the amount of death wrought by this aptly proclaimed “War to End All Wars” is staggering, as the following chart from The Economist soberingly displays. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

An entire generation was ground up in a senseless war that everyone thought would be over in no time. Every single one of those men was a distinct human being with his own identity, personality, dreams, fears, and loved ones. It’s hard to believe tens of millions more would join them just two decades or so later — and many more have since, albeit in far less visible conflicts.

 

Death in the Social Media Age

Social media has allowed average people to establish a persistent and indefinite presence on the internet, namely through profiles like Facebook. It’s strange to imagine that after we pass away, all these photos, posts, and other means of expression will otherwise remain permanently recorded. It can also be eerie when someone has died unexpectedly, leaving you with a timeline of last words and activities.
 
I’ve also seen the profiles of deceased people become shrines of sorts, with many loved ones browsing through them to capture the essence of their departed. I’m not sure of what to make of that — on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to retain so much of a person long after they die; but on the other hand, it may make it more difficult to let go.
 
I can imagine that very soon, it may become common for someone to mention in their will what should be done with their various social media profiles.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

 

Slideshow: Cherry Season in Aleppo — The Struggle For Normalcy Amid Civil War

Foreign Policy has another great but sobering slideshow, this time showcasing the plight of Syria’s beleaguered civilians, namely those in its largest and most contested cities, Aleppo. While we’ve heard much about the back-and-forth between the various warring factions, as usual, the fate of those in the middle is somewhat understated (which in some sense is to be expected, given that they’re passive elements in the grand scheme of the war, at least for the time being).

The article’s introduction puts it pretty well:

Aleppo has been under siege for over nine months — ever since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) stormed the city limits in mid-July. More than 94,000have died throughout Syria, and close to 11,000 have died in Aleppo alone. While the international community dawdles and deliberates, while each side fights for the survival of its reality, civilians here must grapple with the fact that their old lives are gone and their future lives are unknown, and that life must somehow go on between now and then.

So people adapt and cope. The blasts of mortars and artillery fire blend into the background, the threat of snipers becomes a reality to grit your teeth through as you walk home, and dark humor seeps into the daily milieu, calming nerves with a white-knuckled laughter that holds tears at bay. Groceries must be bought, money must be made, bellies must be filled, and days must have some sort of meaning.

The reality of a civilian in war is that life must be risked in order to live. Day-to-day acts can become small feats of rebellion. Risking sniper fire on the walk to work becomes not only a testament to human resilience and our ability to adapt, but sometimes a statement: You can take my life, but you can’t take my choice to live it.

I hope this vicious bloodletting ends soon, and to the benefit of the Syrian people. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely for now: the intractable nature of this grinding war of attrition, as well as the growing sectarianism, makes it difficult to imagine that even a relatively pacified Syria will be stable for long.

RIP Robert G. Edwards

Robert G. Edwards, pioneer of in-vitro fertilization, passed away yesterday, April 10, at age 87. The British physiologist, in collaboration with obstetrician and gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe (who died in 1988), successfully pioneered conception through IVF, which led to the birth of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978. For this he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As of today, over 4 million babies have been born through IVF. Louise Browns had said that “his work, along with Patrick Steptoe, has brought happiness and joy to millions of people all over the world by enabling them to have children.” His work was motivated by his belief that “the most important thing in life is having a child.”

Watch a video portrait of his life and achievement here.

On Counterfactual Thinking and Negativity Bias

It seems that humans can’t help but think about the inevitable “what ifs” that we encounter in life — how things would have turned out  “if only” some factor or another was different. This is known as counterfactual thinking, and it is often problematic not only because we wrack our brains with  regret for having not taken a different path, but also because tend to only apply this train of thought to unfortunate circumstances.

Thus, counterfactual thinking works in tandem with another apparent human predisposition: a negativity bias that focuses more on the bad things that happen to us rather than the good. We’re less inclined to wonder how things could have been worse, because we’re more than happy with the results and would much rather milk the good fortune and move on.

All this makes sense: we dwell on the absence of something because our advanced cognition inclines us to wonder about such mysteries. And we focus on the negative because what hurts us is far more impactful than what doesn’t (with respect to applying this bias to news reports,  it works the same way: what tugs at our negative emotions is going to be more profound).

While there are many explanations for this tendency towards focusing on the negative, the point is, we can’t seem to help it. The bad things stand out the most, and subsequently, our regret at their occurrence makes us struggle with all the ways we — as individuals or as a species — could have prevented them.

But I believe we must make it a habit to notice the bad things that didn’t happen; to acknowledge that the absence of negativity is something to be cherished and pointed out, rather than taken as the default condition. What about making it home in one piece, when you could have very well gotten into a car accident? What about having your loved ones or your health, when the existence of both is ever so fragile? Indeed, the very fact that you’ve managed to live another day is something to be appreciated.

It is a tragedy of human nature — one very much observed throughout our history — that it takes something awful to happen to us to appreciate what life is like in the absence of that awfulness. Terrible things await all of us; inevitably, loved ones will die, hard times will come, and we will suffer and eventually expire. It can be a terrifying thought, but it’s all the more reason that we must stop and be mindful of the good times and precious moments while they last. The finiteness and fragility of life, and what is good, is precisely what makes those things so precious.

Aside

It’s been calculated that the total number of humans that have ever lived was around 107 billion. By comparison, note that as of 2013, there are a little over 7 billion people alive right now, the highest amount of humans that has ever lived at one time.

To get a grasp of how long it’s taken us to get here, consider that we only hit our first billion around the mid-19th century. So our population has increased seven-fold in a little over 150 years, owing to a convergence of advancements in agriculture, medicine, public health, and sanitation.

But most of these 7 billion people — like most humans that have ever lived at any time — are mired in poverty, disease, insecurity, and tyranny. The overwhelming majority of them will never know any other existence but one of struggle — and incredibly, this is a measure of progress, because for as long as this species has been around, anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of a given population was composed of serfs, peasants, and slaves — people without political or economic power, and thus without the subsequent comforts that such things bring.

It wasn’t even that long ago when only 1 to 5 percent of people in the most industrialized countries managed to obtain secondary education, and this remains the case in many poor countries today.

Therefore, those of us reading this status update represent an incredibly miniscule fraction of our species that is literate, relatively well-off, and most likely to live a long and comfortable life, comparatively-speaking. By a mere accident of birth, we’re exceptionally lucky and exceptionally rare. We know and enjoy things that most humans never had the chance to, and that the overwhelming majority of our species still remains without.

It’s sometimes difficult to grasp my level of privilege, and how fortunate I am, by mere random chance, to have this life. We’re only given one shot at existence, and mine just happened to emerge at the right time and place. I must never forget that. I must never squander the subsequent resources of my privilege. With this advantage, which I am no more deserving of than the billions of other people who live (or have lived) on this Earth, I must do my best to be good and just and beneficial to the world.

Luck, Privilege, and Responsibility

The Casualties of Veterans Day

Unfortunately, I was too busy yesterday to make a proper post about this commemoration. And while I’m tempted to make an idealistic and reflective post about the courage and tribulations of those in uniform, or to share the origins and history of the event, I wanted to take a different route from what is the norm.

I read an article in Foreign Policy that reminded me not only of the true origins of Veterans Day, but on how the loss of its original source of commemoration has been detrimental to our understanding of war.

All of our nation’s veterans are honored on November 11, but it is important to recall that the origin of this observance was revulsion at the horrific casualties suffered by so many countries during World War I. Yes, a second and even more destructive conflict followed all too soon after the “war to end all wars,” impelling a name change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. And the rest of the 20th century was littered with insurgencies, terrorism, and a host of other violent ills — most of which persist today, guaranteeing the steady production of new veterans, of which there are 22 million in the United States.

But despite the seemingly endless parade of wars waged and fresh conflicts looming just beyond the bloody horizon, World War I still stands out for its sheer horror. Over ten million soldiers died, and more than twice that number were wounded. This is a terrible enough toll. But what makes these casualties stand out even more is their proportion of the total numbers of troops mobilized. For example, France put about 7.5 million soldiers in the field; one in five died, and three out of four who lived were wounded.

The other major combatants on both sides suffered horribly as well: the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s 6.5 million soldiers had a combined rate of killed and wounded of 74 percent. For Britain and Russia, the comparable figures totaled a bit over 50 percent, with German and Turkish losses slightly below one-half of all who served. The United States entered the conflict late, and so the overall casualty rate for the 4.3 million mobilized was but 8 percent. Even so, it is more than double the percentage of killed and wounded from the Iraq War, where total American casualties amounted to less than 4 percent of the one million who served.

Few conflicts in all of military history have seen victors and vanquished alike suffer such shocking losses as were incurred in World War I, so it is worth taking time to remember how this hecatomb came to pass. A great body of evidence suggests that this disaster was a product of poor generalship. Historian Alan Clark’s magisterial The Donkeys conveys a sense of the incredible stubbornness of high commanders who continued, for years, to hurl massed waves of infantry against machine guns and rapid-firing artillery. All this went on while senior generals stayed far from the front. A British field commander, who went riding daily, even had soldiers spread sand along the country lane he followed, to make sure his horse didn’t slip.

Indeed, World War I is often overshadowed in its barbarity by what followed it only around two decades later. But in many ways, as the article notes, it was just as tragic and horrific (all the more so because its very occurrence, along with the failure and arrogance of its victors, gave way to a second world war). It was also an ultimately unnecessary conflict that dragged on for far longer than any participant expected – a war that perpetuated itself beyond the need to rectify its original casus belli, and which did so at the literally unimaginable cost of millions of lives. Millions of individual persons (I feel the need to emphasize this as sheer numbers make it hard to remember the humanity of those they represent).

WWI was also but a large-scale example of what average troops, mustered mostly from the lower and middle-classes, have had to endure throughout history: being at the mercy of military and political leaders who were often too detached, elitist, and arrogant to take into account the well-being of their grunts. So long as there remained an ample supply of politically and economically powerless young men, there was little reason – in WWI or elsewhere – to be concerned about attrition – there were plenty of other men where those came from (though cruelly, this brutal calculation on the part of the Soviets in World War II is arguably what helped us win the day: they took on the overwhelming majority of Axis forces by sheer numbers, tenacity, and ruthlessness).

So after having read this piece, I came away with the idea that not only should veterans be rightly recognized for their courage and service, but that we mustn’t forget the horrors and brutality they (among others) had to endure in the wars they fought. All too often, I get the impression that we honor the valor and glory of those who served while forgetting that in most instance, even the “good” and victorious wars they partook in are tragedies in themselves. We should honor veterans not just be recognizing what their service but also by ensuring, as much as possible, that generations of young men won’t be grinded up or maimed in the cold machinery of war.

War, even when just and victorious, is always a terrible thing. It will always cost lives and create acrimony between men who may otherwise have no good reason to hate each other, let alone kill one another. I know that there will always be a need for war. I know some wars may be necessary. But just because something is needed doesn’t mean it isn’t detrimental or regrettable. Whether or not men and women had to answer the respective calls of duty that they did, doesn’t change the horror that they faced. They did something few of us would ever want to do – for good reason.