I have an old friend, now dead, whose father was a young lieutenant in Britain’s Coldstream Guards 100 years ago. Years later he described flying to North Africa soon after the war had ended; and as his plane crossed low over Belgium and France, he saw that it took only minutes to fly over trenches that had so recently seemed a universe of mud, stench and death. He was stunned by the mindlessness of it all. In early August 1914, the Great War began, as all wars do, with patriotic pomp and the chest pounding of national leaders. This war will be short, they assured their people, and it will end in a decisive victory by the forces of good. Only then will we have peace and prosperity. The virtuous enthusiasm spread to millions of young men, eager for valor. Four years later over 37 million people were dead. A century later no one is quite sure why.
This was “the war to end war,” wrote H.G. Wells, the war, Woodrow Wilson assured us, that would "make the world safe for democracy." Less than three decades later, 80 million people died in the Good War, and across the arc of the 20th century, writes Milton Leitenberg in Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century, “231 million people died in wars and human conflict.”
When numbers get so large, they lose all meaning. As we grow numb to them, we choose to forget that each of those who died was not a statistic.