I attempt to balance being reasonably well informed about the goings on around the world while tuning out all the partisan blah, blah, blah. I’m just not a political animal. Much of the news these days seems a lot like ridiculously inward focused palace intrigue between eunuchs and concubines. Left, right, center… all blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, external reality is quietly chugging along in the background. I find myself wondering if Meng Wanzhou could be the new Franz Ferdinand.
To this day historians still argue about what actually caused The Great War to break out in 1914. Tens of millions dead on all sides and the best answer for why the war occurred at all is that the world’s institutions were fragile. It didn’t take much to push over the first domino. My friend Steve in Massachusetts handed me a quotable line. “World events require that a whole lot of stupidity be prepared decades in advance.” My friend Brian down in Los Angeles put on his dad voice and summed it up. “It’s all fun and games until someone pokes out an eye.”
Because I live in a tourist destination friends from around the world regularly send me their friends and relatives to crash on my guest bed. I enjoy meeting new people and it’s easy to add a bit of water to the soup to feed visitors. Free gratis. I had a slow motion epiphany regarding the newest generation of smart charming guests from places like Sweden, Japan, Turkey, and Germany. They have no visceral memory of the twentieth century. They’ve read about it. But they were born so long after the traumatic upheavals that it’s just words. Their parents were born after World War II had already ended. And then it hit me. Their grandparents were born after the war. It’s ancient history. It goes without saying Americans have even more historical amnesia.
I’ve been unbelievably lucky in my life and I’ve had the opportunity to travel a great deal. This is the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. Japan saw what European and American colonial powers were doing around the world and decided they’d rather be a hammer than a nail. American Admiral Perry and his gunboat diplomacy demonstrated how the system worked in 1854. Japan rapidly industrialized and successfully extracted territory from Czarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Emboldened by their victory against a much larger power they decided to run with more of that policy. It’s possible to draw a straight intellectual line to Pearl Harbor. Japan’s military adventures eventually failed mostly because they lacked a secure oil supply to fuel their war machine. They achieved their goals after defeat and became a global corporate economic powerhouse. But along the way there were some unpleasant stages in between.
Hiroshima experienced the first – but not the last – use of atomic weapons on a civilian target. The Bomb was too new for imperial Japanese leadership to fully comprehend at first. Nagasaki helped focus their attention. While nuclear weapons hogged all the limelight, plain old fire bombing of Tokyo did far more damage in World War II.
Meanwhile, the attack on Pearl Harbor had immediate consequences for people far afield. My father-in-law spent his early years in an interment camp in the California desert. He was a native born American citizen. So were his sisters and his parents. They were sansei. Technically they were actually more American than my Sicilian relatives back in Brooklyn, some of whom had been born in Europe. But the ethnic Japanese were rounded up for the duration. Their house, car, fishing boat, bank accounts… all seized and never returned. By the way, Canada was even more heavy handed than the US in dispatching its Japanese population during World War II. These are the kinds of things that happen when civilization loses its way.
My young Japanese visitor had no idea the camps ever existed. He was also rather blind to what Japan had been up to in China, Korea, and elsewhere at the time. Nanjing Massacre? Comfort women? Never happened. My Turkish friend entirely dismisses the Armenia Genocide. Same same.
I spent time wandering the Soviet Union from Leningrad to Moscow just after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I lived with Russian families and spend a lot of time listening to the older people who had witnessed the Revolution and endured the hardships of multiple wars. Russia lost more people by far than any of the participants in various conflagrations. The stories the old folks told weren’t about political theories or abstract economic treatises. Instead they focused on hunger, cold, and the death of loved ones. They survived each day by eating a small cube of compressed sawdust made from whatever trees and bushes could be gathered during the three year Siege of Leningrad. Moscow wasn’t much better.
An Austrian friend’s grandmother died last month at the age of 104. All things considered she had a pretty good run. Tucked away in a discrete photo album are pictures of Oma and Opa in the Alps in their courting days in the 1930s. Did they know what was coming? Did they see it? Were they passive victims of historical events or active participants in what unfolded? Did they have a choice? Only the 104 year olds know for sure.
Kiev in the Ukraine suffered from the usual stress of being a fertile crossroads between empires – a borderland as its ancient name suggests. Communists on one side. Fascist on the other. Big fun. When the war finally ended and the famine was relieved substantial efforts were made to build monuments to the fallen and to leave a physical reminder to future generations. This shit was bad. Real bad. Don’t ever forget. And don’t ever let this happen again.
But memory is selective. In a quiet park in Kiev Ukrainians tend a rustic cross to memorialize a few Orthodox priests who resisted occupation. Elsewhere a simple stone commemorates the 33,000 Jews who were gathered and exterminated in a nearby ravine in a two day period in 1941. The stone was installed by foreign Jews after the Soviet Union dissolved. A menorah shaped monument is continually vandalized. Babi Yar isn’t known by many Ukrainians today. Let’s just say Ukrainians don’t miss their former Jewish neighbors all that much.
Today the world is governed by people who have no personal experience of the pain and loss of actual conflict. That’s why all sides are embroiled in minutiae and drifting in an ominous direction. Meanwhile the populations they represent – left, right, and center – are pissed off and looking for someone to blame for what’s wrong. This isn’t about any specific ideology. It’s about raw unfocused anger. We’ve been here before. It’s not pretty. How long before people look back wistfully on our present moment of relative calm. Ich Will den Kaiser Zurück.