I watched a History Channel documentary series on the World Wars this weekend, so that basically makes me a history buff. It’s interesting to me, however, that I decided to sit down and watch the entire thing during the weekend preceding Veterans Day. It offered me a bit of an epiphany I’d like to share.
Most people know about the trench warfare and mustard gas of World War I, and most people know about Hitler and the terrible, terrible Holocaust. But these conflicts were the most deadly in human history, and the circumstances surrounding them were very complex.
When we talk about the World Wars, we don’t often mention Stalin or Mussolini. We talk about the Japanese Empire, but usually in the context of Pearl Harbor or the bombs that ended the war. We don’t often talk about the Treaty of Versailles and how it sowed such resentment in the German people that Hitler was able to capitalize on it. We don’t talk about how the Great Depression made everything worse or how FDR’s New Deal saved the U.S. economy but weakened its military and how Britain did essentially the same.
We don’t talk about the precariousness of the edge that the world was on.
Had Hitler not made a series of fatal mistakes, the world could be a very different place. We were closer than we’d ever been to living in a global totalitarian society, so close, in fact, that there’s a common trope in alternate history fiction that questions what the world would be like if Hitler had won (Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle series is doing this right now). Of course, in films like 1984, there’s a specific reason soldier uniforms appear similar to those of the Third Reich.
History and literature continue to warn us of the evil within ourselves. In many ways, that is what I’m interested in writing about.
Thanks to the efforts of all of our veterans, we live in a free world. But while Hitler may be the archetypal evil tyrant, he wasn’t alone, and he won’t be the last with aspirations of world domination.
Most of us will never know combat or even what the day-to-day life of a soldier is like. I suspect every soldier joins the military for a different reason, whether it’s to help pay for exorbitant education costs, to help support a family, for the truly noble reason of defending innocent people, or all of the above.
However, as long as we remember the evils we’ve faced in the past, how they grew from and found political power in anger and spite, we can prevent potential evil from gaining power again.
When we thank our veterans for their service, for ensuring our freedom, what we’re really saying is, “Remember the bloodiest conflicts in human history? Yeah, you’re helping to prevent that from happening again. That was a really bad time, so thanks for stopping the Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Stalins of the world. Those guys are just the worst. Seriously, screw them.”
Happy Veterans Day.