Thursday, August 6, 2009

What History Can Teach Us, Revisited

Caption: Australian infantry wearing Small Box Respirators (SBR). The soldiers are from the 45th Battalion, Australian 4th Division at Garter Point near Zonnebeke, Ypres sector, 27 September 1917.

Image credit: Capt. Frank Hurley/Wikimedia

The last British World War I veteran to die of old age was buried today:

The funeral service for Britain's last surviving World War I veteran Harry Patch who died aged 111 has taken place at Wells Cathedral in Somerset.

Thousands of people lined the streets of Wells as his coffin was taken to the cathedral where the service was relayed on big screens to crowds outside.
He was the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches during the Great War.

Last Post salute For WWI Veteran

I've written before that the lessons we learn tend to disappear with the generation that learned them. Harry Patch's memories of his youth involve scenes like the one in this picture, of waiting in filthy trenches to be ordered to charge across an empty space through artillery and machine gun fire. What lesson did he draw from them?

Pensioner Jim Ross, speaking on behalf of Mr Patch's friends, said: "He realised he was one of a dwindling band and that as that band decreased in numbers, he was becoming more and more significant.

"He had the choice of either creeping away into the background or making his message known.

"Harry knew that by speaking out, the memories would come back, the demons I call them, would come back to torment and torture him.

"I believe they did, but I believe Harry made the decision because he wanted to get his message broadcast.

"His prime message is that we should settle disputes by negotiation and compromise, not by war."

Last Post salute For WWI Veteran

It's a lesson that almost sounds trite, if you're not one of the ones whose lives were affected by their leaders' inability to do just that. Learning history is the way we keep experience alive. It's important. Our experience in Iraq, and our continuing, but largely pointless, hostility toward Iran show that we haven't learned this lesson yet.

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