After the two longest wars in U.S. history, Americans are watching these days as all that was won in Iraq is on the verge of being lost because of a corrupt sectarian leadership we helped to install. And Afghanistan’s government seems nearly as unstable, even as U.S. troops are preparing to leave and a second act similar to Iraq’s could be in the offering.
It may be a bit of providence that this year is the 100th anniversary of World War I — one of the most futile and disastrous wars in human history, in which little was accomplished except the sowing of seeds for worse horrors to come. With Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and with Israelis and Palestinians again engaged in mutual hostilities with no hope of victory or defeat, now may be the time to reflect upon the price of war and the challenge of peace.
That war’s consequences are so little in our control is no fault of the brave men and women who sought to serve
their country when duty called.
This week Russell Shaw writes a masterful analysis of “the war to end all wars” (page 9). Shaw looks at World War I both as history and as a spiritual mile marker on the blood-soaked path through the 20th century. Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini all rose from the bloodied muck of Verdun and the Somme, but as Shaw describes, so did a modern disillusionment in both man and God.
The dogs of war, once unleashed, are not easily restrained. It may soon be a bitter irony that in our own day the desire to punish the architects and protectors of the terror unleashed on 9/11 has led to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the “caliphate” that was Osama bin Laden’s ultimate goal. The wars have also led to the de-Christianization of the Holy Land, another casualty of the sectarian strife they’ve spawned.
That war’s consequences are so little in our control is no fault of the brave men and women who sought to serve their country when duty called. But these predictably unpredictable consequences do challenge us to question both the leaders who send our youth into war and we who allow them to do so. As many soldiers have noted when back stateside between multiple tours of duty, the rest of the country — that is, us — went on about our lives for 13 years oblivious to the price a few of us were asked to pay. War did not exact from us even an increase in taxes to pay its $4 trillion in cost, much less any other sacrifice.
Yet those who do fight make great sacrifices. And the price they pay is ongoing. Today we call it names like PTSD. Survivors of World War I paid a similar cost.
One hundred years ago, the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, a survivor of “the great war,” wrote in his poem “Repression of War Experience” of a man back home in England who cannot escape the memories: “... they never cease/ Those whispering guns — O Christ, I want to go out/ And screech at them to stop — I’m going crazy;/ I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.”
Pope Benedict XV was a lonely voice who refused to take sides in World War I and begged, “Surely there are other ways and means ...”
In 2003, at the start of the first Iraq War, Pope St. John Paul II then said: “War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.”
The popes of the 20th century and now the 21st have all been stalwart advocates for peace. But while the peacemakers may be blessed, modern history suggests they are also ignored, at least until the history books are written.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor