It’s May 9th 2015, around the world yesterday and today were commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II*, the most apocalyptic conflict the world has ever seen, and hopefully will ever see. It’s with an odd detachment that I reflect in this history while sipping a Starbucks frappuccino in Hawaii. For those of my generation, the world we live in is truly the product of our (great-)grandparents’ history, and seventy years seems such a short time ago for the transformation of everything.
(*In Europe, but for the sake of remembrance, let’s say WWII)
If anything gives us perspective into the relative insignificance our problems today, it should be the what the Greatest Generation endured through those few terrible years, which for the dwindling millions still alive today, remains a living memory, and for the rest of us, a foundation of our world we enjoy today. So powerful was the impact of that one terrible War that every single person that lived then and is alive today has been shaped by it and the world order that emerged from its ashes.
In middle school, our class had the privilege of being the audience to veterans of the War. This was in the spring of 2000, when an estimated 5 million US veterans remained alive, mostly in their 70s and 80s. I remember being told that we were very fortunate, as we may be the last generation of children privileged enough to meet and hear their stories first-hand. Recent statistics I’ve read suggest this is likely to be true, as 15 years later, fewer than 1 million vets remain, many in declining health. Still they gather, to remember what they can of a War that will soon become collective history.
Out of deference to the Greatest Generation, even with their first-hand accounts, I admit that I will never truly understand what it was like to live through this crazy period of our modern history, but it’s also with mixed feelings that I reflect on all that was destroyed and lost. How horrible is it that so-called civilized nations would take upon themselves as their national agenda to inflict such vast destruction on each other, drafting mere children, young men and women to slaughter each other and civilians by the millions across the lands of others. Why did this piece of history have to happen? And could it happen again?
Growing up in the United States, my perspective of the war was one where the Allies had no choice but to enter, with the US dragged in by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and fuelled by the just need to fight fascism of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Given the stakes, it can’t be disputed that it was a just, necessary war. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve taken a more balanced perspective from the eyes of a global citizen looking back at humanity’s collective history. The sheer scale of the conflict in aggregate eludes any sense of individual comprehension. That the powers of the so-called civilized world could allow, as national policy, the absolute carnage that was the slaughter of nearly 100 million men, women, and children–most of which had no care in the world of the ambitions of the war’s executioners–defies rational understanding.
As an adult, I’m left with the disturbing realization that even those executioners of the war were mere humans, like you or I–humans, acting out of some sense of purpose and necessity. The victims, were everyone else–all innocents–whether they were the kids drafted into the conflict of their national leaders, or even worse, the victims of ethnic hate and mechanized genocide, and the unthinkable suffering of peoples and families in lands that were laid in waste through the conflict.
We live in an age today where we can, and should, learn to take a global perspective of the War, where the pain and anguish caused to peoples across all nations should be remembered, as to prevent such horrors from ever again touching our common human history. This responsibility is on all of us, and in a world where more nations are democracies than ever before, we must hold our leaders accountable to ensure that the long peace since the War remains a lasting peace for us and our succeeding generations. With the weapons of war at our disposal today, this is an imperative for our survival as a civilization.
It is with this understanding that I have come to further appreciate the international order that came to rise from the ashes of the conflict, not least of which includes the United Nations. Founded in the tail end of the conflict, and remains to this day (albeit imperfect as it is) a body devoted to international peace, it is an incredible common achievement of nations, given the years of horrors that preceded it.
It is certainly an imperfect body, but given that no major power has gone to direct war with each other since it’s founding, I find its role highly successful given its initial goals. The founding document is the United Nations Charter, a sort of constitution if you will, encompassing a shared treaty of all member states, which today is basically all the countries of the world. If you’ve never read the preamble, I encourage you to do so, if anything, to understand the common will of peoples just emerging from the ashes of the greatest destruction that mankind has ever inflicted on itself. For the sake of the lazy, I’ve included the text below.
May we all become more enlightened of our common history, and our individual roles to protect the peace that cost so many millions of lives.
CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
- to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
- to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
- to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
- to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
AND FOR THESE ENDS
- to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
- to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
- to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
- to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS
Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.
Signed, June 26th, 1945
Ratified, October 24, 1945