Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looming across the World War I "Centennial:" The death of the World War II generation

Before it even commences, the year 2014 is guaranteed to offer at least one landmark moment, the centennial of the outbreak of World War I.
Looking back, the rise and fall of "modern" trench warfare, of the nation-state of Marxist-Leninism and Arab nationalism (to name a few of the conflict's most important progeny) remind me of the tremendous dynamism of this mere hundred-year period.
But as I look forward, the centennial portends more meaningful, drastic change.
In five years, my great-uncle, a US Air Force veteran of D-Day, will reach 100 (if he survives his current frail state and life-threatening cancer). Within the following ten years the vast majority of persons capable of fighting in World War II will have broached the limit of the human lifespan.
Just as a mere twenty years separated the Treaty of Versailles from the invasion of Poland, so will the next two-decades witness the vanishing of the generation that fought in World War II.
The loss of living witnesses to one of humanity's deadliest endeavours is bound to have consequences on international politics, as the war's shadow continues to loom large in both the arenas of international politics and regional politics across the world.
Internationally, the indiscriminate murder of civilians and soldiers in this conflict, whose deathtoll approaches the 70-million mark (including such acts of mass civilian murder as the Holocaust and the "Rape of Nanking") spurred the formation of the United Nations (whose charter's opening preamble explicitly defines the organization as a reaction to the "scourges of war"), which established the first toothful mechanisms of International collective security and the first comprehensive legal definition of universal "human rights."
As a result, any world leader who now engages in non-preemptive offensive combat (e.g. Saddam Hussein in Kuwait)-once a routine part of Realpolitik based on loosely-defined "national interests"-risks being subject to sanctions or military action by the UN Security Council (albeit allocating a permanent veto to shield the Five "Great Powers").
Moreover, the traditional immunity of states and their sovereigns from foreign compulsion even for the worst of atrocities has been challenged in the postwar era by UN-affiliated International Criminal Tribunals, which have indicted of leaders from Milosevic of Yugoslavia to Bashir of Sudan-for committing "crimes against humanity" against their populations.
Perhaps the gravest of these "crimes" (as listed by the ICC), "genocide" was first coined by a Polish Jew named Rapheal Lemkin, who after suffering the death of his entire family in the Holocaust (from which he barely escaped himself) lobbied successfully for the first international convention on mass civilian murder, implemented in 1950.
Even those sovereigns whose power or connections safely shield them from any effective prosecution for either genocidal crimes or aggressive warfare (e.g. President Bush) risk the appellation of "war criminal," "fascist" (or, most egregiously) "Nazi." The latter label, unfortunately, has been put into overdrive in its usage, being applied (for instance) by left-wing student protestors to University administrators or American Conservative groups to environmentalists.
Additionally the War's truly global geography has left powerful but distinct legacies on the politics of disparate regions of the globe.
For Western Europe, the economic and physical ruin wrought by interstate conflict based on aggressive nationalism have stood behind the since-continuous process of European Integration, effectively tying a revived Germany into supranational political and economic structures that make cooperation, rather than competition, the norm.
Across the ocean, the sole unscathed victor, the United States saw in the war a moral precedent for the "just" use of force, with the specter of Totalitarianism serving as a moral baton for the "world's policeman" from Vietnam to Iraq to Libya.
In East Asia, the wartime atrocities of the Japanese Occupation forces add fuel to a potential conflagration with the rising Chinese dragon, especially when right-wing Japanese governments display unrepentant atttitudes.
 And in the Middle East, the ghost of the Holocaust and the legacy of appeasement-a la Munich-provides a powerful analogy for Israeli hawks seeking to stymie Western overtures to Iran and, previously, the Palestinian Authority. (On the flip side, Hitler's Mein Kampf and Holocaust denial serve as popular outlets in the Islamic World as expressions of antagonism towards Israel).                  Now, the loss of eyewitnesses does not mean the loss of memory.
World War II remains a popular subject in film, television and video games and institutions as well as the focal point of entire museums, towering monuments(1, 2) and national holidays (i.e. in Russia and some other post-Soviet states).
Indeed, the increasing distance from the war may enable for commentators in different countries to develop more nuanced portrayals of the conflict (e.g. the 2004 German film, Der Untergang ("Downfall") which gained notoriety, domestically and abroad, for its portrayal of Adolf Hitler as a human being).
Alternatively, the passage of time may allow for simplified nationalist cliches to grow stronger, where the war's history serves as a focal point of conflict (notably in regards to the Arab-Israeli and Chinese-Japanese scenarios).
Scarier still stands the possibility-at some eventual point in time-for global public to lose its acuity to the horrors of militarism and of genocidal disregard for life. (an apathy that, as I pointed nearly a year ago, has already started to creep into America)
The other day, while browsing a leftist blog, I stumbled across a quote by Malcolm X: "History is a people's memory and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals."
As the last of the generations to have experienced World War II fades from the planet, the memory of our generation-our parents and our offspring-will shape the history of the past and the politics of the present across the planet.

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