Copyright © 2003 Henrietta W. Hay
The War to End War -- Not Yet
May 2, 2003
Some thirteen years ago, in June of 1990, I found a letter while going
through family papers, and I wrote a column on it. I think it as
timely today as it was 13 years ago.
The letter is headed "Somewhere or other" and dated July 3, 1918. The
postmark reads "Censored, American Expeditionary Force". It is a letter
written to my father by a University of Illinois classmate from
somewhere in France during that war that most people alive today
remember only when they have to study for a history test.
The lieutenant tells of a soldier friend who was, "standing post at a
cross-roads about half a mile back of those well known front line
trenches and it was my business to visit him several times during the
night." Apparently the visits were uneventful, because he goes on to
say that "nothing very exciting ever seems to happen when I am around,
but I'm not complaining. I expect to get as much excitement as is good
for me before I get home Just now I'm 'sitting pretty' back in reserve,
a couple of miles from the line with nothing to worry about and a fairly
good bed to sleep in." Actually, he had a good deal to worry about.
The United States suffered over 320,000 casualties in that war.
Then the lieutenant reminds us of still another far more ancient war
when he says, "This is some country over here. They used to be somewhat
behind the times, but Julius Caesar came over here once and introduced
all the latest conveniences of civilization!"
By some sort of mental time warp, the day after I found the letter, I
watched the emotional ceremonies in which President Bush greeted
President Gorbachev on the White House lawn. That was the senior
George H. W. Bush.
The young lieutenant in France thought he was fighting the "War to End
All Wars." Presidents Bush and Gorbachev were meeting to discuss
matters which were easing the threat of the war that truly would end all
wars and probably everything else. I think it was Albert Einstein who
said that he didn't know what World War III would be fought with, but WW
IV would be fought with rocks.
Most of my life we have either been in a war, recuperating from a war or
getting ready to get into another one. Seeing that letter and feeling
what might almost be called the innocence of it made me realize how far
we have come in my lifetime in the science of making war, and how truly
hopeful was that meeting in Washington.
I wonder what the lieutenant in France in 1918 and Mr. Gorbachev would
have found to talk about had the time warp been complete.
"I don't understand, Mr. G. We are fighting this war here in France to
end all wars."
"Well, young man, it didn't work. We had one really big one that ended
with a nuclear explosion."
"And what is a nuclear explosion, sir? Is it anything like a dynamite
"Well, not really. It kills a lot more people and scares everybody and
started what we call the Cold War."
What is a Cold War, sir?"
"Young man, you'd never believe me if I told you."
I like to think that war is a stage in human evolution which we will
outgrow as we become more human. Watching the two presidents in
Washington on that sunny morning, 72 eventful years after the letter was
written, made me think that maybe - just maybe - humankind has learned
something from the horrible wars which are the legacy of the 20th
century. Maybe - just maybe - we can afford to hope a little that this
generation of people on earth will witness the coming of peace. Maybe
-just maybe -in my grandchildren's lifetimes people will learn to settle
their differences without killing each other. Maybe even in the words
of Carl Sandburg, "Some day they'll give a war and nobody will come."
May, 2003. No, not yet.