Last July 28 marked the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The coming year 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
The two anniversaries seem to be in the remote past, especially the First World War, which hardly affected the Philippines. No battles were fought in the Philippines and while we had several thousand Filipinos who volunteered to join the American armed forces, most were never deployed. There is at least one Filipino, Tomas Mateo Claudio, who died in the battlefield in France, shortly before the war ended in 1918.
The Second World War affected us much more, with the Japanese invading, and occupying the Philippines for more than three years. More than a million Filipinos died during that war, many in the battle over Manila in 1945 in the last battles to expel the Japanese.
Reasons to remember
It is important to have activities to mark both world wars, for several reasons.
First we have to remember the courage and valor of many who lived through the war: women and men, soldiers and civilians. There are still many untold or forgotten stories that need to be brought out, including many heartwarming ones where distinctions between friends and foes faded away.
Second, we need to highlight the inhumanity of wars. The First World War marked the industrialization of war, the achievements of “civilization” used to kill and to maim: airplanes, toxic gases and armaments that became more and more powerful.
Europeans called it the Great War, not to praise it but out of wistful thinking that it would not be repeated. Yet, barely 20 years after the end of that Great War, Germany had invaded neighboring countries and in Asia, the Japanese Imperial Army had massacred thousands in China and was marching on to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The Second World War was to prove to be far more brutal than the “Great War” with weapons of truly mass destruction. We think of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but forget “ordinary” bombs destroying entire cities. We forget, too, the Holocaust, the gas chambers of German concentration camps used to exterminate Jews, as well as other “undesirables,” which include communists, gypsies and even homosexuals. (Jews were identified by a Star of David sewn into garments, homosexuals with a pink triangle.)
We should not forget, too, the day-to-day dehumanization of the war in the Philippines, from the comfort women—very young girls forced to give sexual services to Japanese soldiers—to the Makapili, fellow Filipinos who collaborated with the Japanese, including betraying members of the underground guerrillas.
A third reason to remember the two world wars is to pick up lessons to prevent wars, whether global or not. There is a tendency to think of the beginning of these wars in terms of a date, and a single incident: July 28, 1914, for example, was the day a Yugoslav ultranationalist assassinated the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which led to a diplomatic crisis and the Austro-Hungarians eventually declaring war on Serbia.
Closer to our time, we think of the beginning of the Second World War as Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Conversely, we think of the end of the Second World War, in Asia at least, as the day Emperor Hirohito conceded Japan’s defeat.
Triggers to war
But the world wars erupted because of many “small” incidents, happening at the wrong place, at the wrong time and building up across time. The Second World War was in part a continuation of the “Great War,” a defeated and humiliated Germany mesmerized by Adolf Hitler and Nazism’s promises of a Germany regaining lost glory.
The Japanese, too, capitalized on growing nationalism within Japan, as well as in Asia, convincing not a few Filipinos that they were an alternative to the American “imperialists.”
Some of my older relatives have been anxious, asking if perhaps the world has been, in the last few years, and 2014 in particular, going through much more turbulence than in previous decades, and asking if we might be headed for a Third World War.
I try to calm them down, pointing out that with so much live coverage of adverse events by cable TV and mass media, the world’s tensions tend to be more ominous.
Deep down though, I’ve wondered if indeed we are seeing more instability now in different parts of the world, and that world peace is indeed under threat. There are just too many “flash points” in the world, including our own West Philippine Sea (South China Sea to the Chinese).
There are also just too many weapons of war that are available. We have to remember the First World War was literally triggered by a handgun used in the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. Today the guns are far more powerful and lethal, and the problem is not just individual terrorists but of governments, whether the United States and its drones, or the Russian-backed forces using more conventional weapons to shoot down that passenger plane earlier this year in the Ukraine.
It is easy to fall for an oversimplified characterization of the main enemy as suicide bombers motivated by Islamist ideologies. Many are young, and come from the growing numbers of the dispossessed and alienated, some motivated by the need to build up self-esteem, some even their masculinity, rather than a love of Islam. They are a varied lot: some coming from very poor hinterlands of some of the poorest countries in the world, others from comfortable middle-class European families.
Fanaticism finds followers when there is a social vacuum, an inability to answer the questions young people ask. The economic crisis hitting Europe has mainly affected the young, who compare their own unemployment and hardship amid scandalous wealth and affluence. Relative inequality, rather than poverty itself, will figure prominently in the year ahead as a driver of more discontent, and more flash points for conflicts, and wars.
The year 2015 will be significant for another reason: in 2000 the world’s nations agreed on a set of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) around poverty alleviation, education, children’s health, the eradication of particular diseases, and building global ties. The target date for the goals was 2015. Considerations of war and peace, of economic and social justice, must guide us as we examine how we fared with the MDGs, and how we might craft a post-2015 development agenda.
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