The Men of Bronze

The 369th Infantry Regiment was an all-African American and Puerto Rican regiment of the U.S. Army that served with distinction in both World Wars. Prior to its formation, any black man wishing to fight in the First World War had to enlist in the French or Canadian armies; indeed, despite the disproportionately high turnout of African Americans to recruitment centers – many of whom wished to prove themselves to a nation that little of them, at best – the U.S. initially rejected them. But as the war grinded on and the Allies found themselves facing a shortage of manpower, the U.S. relented and formed a new regiment to be specially comprised of blacks and Puerto Ricans.

However, because many white Americans refused to fight alongside blacks and Hispanics, and often harassed and denigrated serviceman of color, the U.S. Army decided to assign the regiment to the exhausted and decimated French Army – albeit with a warning to the French that African Americans were inferior and prone to rape. Continue reading

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.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

To mark the centenary of the First World War, tens of thousands of blood-red ceramic poppies will be planted around the Tower of London, each representing a life lost in the bloody four-year conflict.

The installation called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was created by artist Paul Cummins and set designer Tom Piper with the help of a team of around 8,000 dedicated volunteers. Planting began on August 5, the start of the war, and will continue until November 11, Armistice Day (also known as Remembrance Day), which marks the end of the war.

By then, the iconic monument will have 888,246 poppies, a somber reflection of the staggering death toll. Both British and Commonwealth soldiers are represented, including around 74,000 troops from the Indian subcontinent who gave their lives to the empire.

At barely 120,000 or so poppies as of this post, it already looks sobering:

Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London. Between 5th August (start of the war) and 11th November (Remembrance Day), there will be a poppy planted for each death. Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London III Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London IV

It is hard to imagine that each poppy represents a single human life, an individual with a name, identity, dreams, ideas, fears, loved ones. To think that all this is but a fraction of the over 16 million people who died, nearly half of whom were civilians (I can only imagined the scale of this project if it entailed all those lives.

The poppy became a symbol of remembrance in Britain during the First World War, inspired by a 1915 poem called “In Flanders Field” by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which recalled the fragile flower melding with the dead in Flanders, Belgium (the site of many horrific battles).

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The ceramic poppies do an excellent job of visualizing just how many individuals died in this senseless conflict. Each took three days to make and were put up for public sale; after the last poppy is planted in November, the small sculptures will be sent to buyers and the proceeds will go to British charities such as the Royal Legion and Help for Heroes, which serve British veterans.

Source: The Independent

An Excellent Summary of the Tragedy of WWI

As the centennial of history’s first world war falls further behind us, so too will the necessary ruminations and analyses that remain relevant in our fragile international system. While there are nor shortage of well-written and deeply-reflective pieces on the subject, the following one by Burt Solomon of The Atlantic is one of my favorite. Although this excerpt stood out the most, I strongly recommend reading the whole thing — it is succinct but on point.

And for this, more than 16 million men went to their slaughter, many of them in cruel and creative ways. In trenches that stretched an unbroken 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the Germans constructed walls using corpses, so that French troops who captured a trench hung canteens from protruding ankles. Along the Somme River, in northern France, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded in 1916 for an Allied advance of seven miles. Poisonous gas filled a quarter of all the artillery shells fired on the western front in 1918. More than a third of German males born between 1892 and 1895 died in the course of the war. The killing spread to civilians in England and France attacked by German zeppelins. War was no longer noble, even as some of the men who fought it were noble beyond compare.

It was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price. A hard-hearted peace treaty and a ravaged economy produced a “lost generation” of young Germans and led directly to the rise of Hitler and an even uglier worldwide conflagration. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached by Britain and France in 1916 drew arbitrary boundary lines across the postwar Middle East—around Iraq, for instance—that are returning deadly dividends to this day. The toppling of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a balkanized Europe that, as recently as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine, pains us still. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.

All wars tell us something about the basest regions of human nature, the First World War (caustically named in 1918 by an English journalist who thought it would not be the last) more than most. About the nature of covetousness, the perils of insecurity, the ease of losing human control over human events.

We’ve come a long way in many respects, but only up to a point. Complacency with regards to a seemingly stable and prosperous future had also proceeded the First World War. This isn’t intended to be alarmist — I am well aware that the world is a far more peaceful place than it has ever been, relatively speaking — but it is a reminder that peaceful coexistence and the overcoming of our basest motives for violence and cruelty require tremendous vigilance and an understanding of the mistakes from the past. That is pretty much the only good thing to take away from such a horrifically pointless but deadly conflict.

A Sobering Centennial

On this day 100 years ago, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, thus triggering the First World War, one of history’s deadliest conflicts.

The war lasted a little over four years and lead to the deaths of 16 million people (nearly half civilians), the wounding of 20 million more, and the end of four empires (Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, and Ottoman). Its political, social, and cultural impact remains to this day, with many of its unresolved consequences contributing to the even bloodier Second World War just 21 years later.

Time does not permit me to write as extensively about the topic as it deserves, but I advise you to scour the web for all the great articles and reflections concerning this seminal event in human history. Though often overshadowed by the much larger war that followed, its legacy remains strong to this day.

Forty Maps That Explain World War I

Credit: Wikipedia

Today is the centennial of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, whose death at the hands of Serbian revolutionaries set off the chain reaction that lead to history’s first (though sadly not last) global war.*

Few conflicts have been more pivotal to the course of human history; not only did the Great War, as it was originally called, help pave the way to another massive and world-changing conflict just two-and-a-half decades later, but its influence can be seen today in the political, cultural, demographic, national psyches of the nations involved.

While I wish I had more time to engage in proper reflection about this very worthy topic, my chronic shortage of time leaves me with this nonetheless informative substitute: forty maps (courtesy of Vox) that help explain the lead up to the war, its major events and innovations, and its subsequent consequences. I highly recommend you check them out to get a firmer understanding of just why this long-overshadowed conflict is making something of a comeback in public and academic consciousness.

*While there had technically been previous conflicts fought between European powers across the world (namely the fierce colonial competition between France and Britain), these hardly reached the scale and scope of the First World War.

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.