For most of us, World War I is quaint, ancient history. And to this day, few people, including historians, can come up with a half-way sane reason for its awful, pointless, brutal, lethal stupidity. In his book, "The Missing of the Somme," Geoff Dyer writes, "The exact number of people who died in the Great War will never be known. France and Germany each lost more than a million and a half men; Russia, two million. Three-quarters of a million of the dead were British -- a figure which rises to almost a million when the losses of the Empire as a whole are considered."
Those millions truly were a lost generation, and their loss would echo down the years, the war itself becoming the locus for the next one in an unholy cycle of death. But conceiving of "millions" is hard for the human mind to comprehend. Which is why an art installation at the Tower of London to mark the centenary of the start of that awful war is so effective. Try Googling "Seas of Red," and trail through the listings, some news stories and photos, the other listings video images. ( poppies.hrp.org.uk/ )
The piece consists of 888,246 three-feet tall red ceramic poppies -- the poppies of Flanders Fields fame, one for each of the Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Great War. The poppies spill out of a window at the Tower of London (a place not unfamiliar with blood itself) like a river of blood, a river that floods the great moat. The effect is visually arresting, creepy, appalling and beautiful, all at the same time. It also gives the viewer a visceral, symbolic image of the scale of what was lost in those Flanders Fields.
And all the other Flanders Fields that came after it -- The never ending flood of war dead.
Armistice Day, 11/11/19, was originally set aside to commemorate the ending of this one, singularly unique "Great War." By 1954, there were too many other war-dead that needed inclusion so the name was changed to Veterans Day since it was clear that the war to end all wars was a misnomer.
And because it was a misnomer, perhaps it's time for every country to create their own Seas of Red to remind citizens in a very real way, of what they continue to lose every time old men beat the war drums while young men and women march to their deaths. To start, I suggest a Sea of Red spilling out of the doors of Congress and running down the mall in a crimson flood to end at the doors of the Veterans Administration. A pointed reminder that a good part of that red tide is the living war-wounded who are still bleeding. And need our help.