When I was young I would go to the Armistice Day parade, just around the corner from where I lived, and there I would see elderly veterans from the First World War. As I grew up, I would meet more elderly veterans, except they were by then from the Second World War. Now I meet elderly veterans of the war in Vietnam who are, of course, my contemporaries. No reason to mention any of this, other than that sense of personal connection to the war which began 100 years ago this month.
But what is remarkable is that the country each of those generations of old soldiers defended was a different country from the one we live in now and, no doubt, very different from the country it will be 30 years or more hence. Amongst the many things that I read as a university student very few have stuck with me as active memories, but one exception is the statement made somewhere by someone that every social theorist and revolutionary, were they returned to earth a hundred years after they had written or fought, would hate the world they had helped to create. Maybe part of getting old is that sense of alienation from the present. Things look crazy, and I speak as someone who was not only a contemporary of the original hippies and the new left, but was actually one amongst them. No one since has been as crazy as we were in those days, and I have come to feel my generation has a very great deal to answer for. But perhaps I am just one more of those theorists who would find the world they helped to create more awful than they could possibly have imagined. But it would not surprise me, a century into the future, that I would not like the world I helped to shape. It was perhaps ever thus.
My contribution to the mass of discussion on the outbreak of WWI is to mention my favourite book on the topic, Frank Furedi’s World War One: Still No End in Sight. He makes the point that The Great War presented one of the great discontinuities in history, an eruption from which the world we share today is still experiencing major aftershocks. He reviewed the way things evolved, decade by decade, so that there is an almost geological stratification of the various periods. My hippy days/era-of-the-new-left foundation period has its own ways of marking individuals. And if you see the 1960s against the 1950s, the 1940s, the 1930s and back through to the 1920s, you cannot help noticing how different was each period was from those before and after and, of course, the present.
Part of those transformations is technology, but there is something else, too. Moods shift, the temper of the times change. The only time I ever remember my mother being outraged by something I said – and she was a woman of the left – was when I quoted a friend who said, “better a sexual revolution than no revolution at all.” I see my mother’s point, but to tell the truth, the 1960s were as puritanical, compared with today, as were Edwardians in comparison with 1960s types. Such sweet innocence! It was heaven to be young, but I suppose it always is and will be.
That WWI broke up ancient empires and created new ones is not in doubt. That we would be as different as different could be had WWI been somehow prevented I also have no doubt. But such is the way of the world. Major events happen, as they will continue to do. What Furedi does is remind you that things change and nothing stays as it is. There is no permanence, and that everything you think really matters, down to the core values by which you set your moral compass, is but windblown ephemera whose existence a century from now cannot be even remotely guaranteed.
We all live in the present, but the present keeps sliding into that unknown future which holds horrors one cannot even begin to imagine. And great pleasures too, of course, so we must just battle on.