Amid monuments to war, lessons are ignored

September 12, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III

LONDON - Pulling into Paddington Station here last week on the train from Heathrow Airport I noticed a memorial statue at the far end of one of the platforms and went to see what it was.

It was a monument to men who had died in World War I and World War II, these particular casualties employees of the Great Western Railway, all 3,700 of them. Three thousand, seven hundred men! All from one company. No names were on the monument, only a large figure of a World War I soldier standing with his head bowed and his helmet in his folded hands.

It struck me that for more than five years, as a young boy, I had boarded a train at Paddington Station three times a year to go to school in the Cotswolds, and now, some 50 years later, I was noticing the memorial for the first time. I must have had other things on my mind. Certainly, they did not include the two World Wars, though Europe at that time was only beginning to recover from World War II and in London and Europe's large cities, the devastation of the war was prolifically evident.

Anyone who has been to London knows that an obscure statue at the end of a train platform is only one of many, many monuments to wars in which Britain fought over the centuries. They're all over the place.

Looking at them today, one realizes that the memorials to the wars before the 20th century are grand and proud, like Nelson's perched high over Trafalgar Square, or Wellington's not far away, and the Waterloo Bridge named after the great battle in which he defeated Napoleon. The heroes of other imperial wars and campaigns when the British Empire touched every continent are enshrined throughout the city, all the proud participants in Great Britain's golden era.

But the glow faded with the 20th century and the two wars that ravaged Europe. The monuments to those wars are more reverent and solemn, more respectful of the unthinkable brutality that modern inventions brought to war, more respectful of the vast number of people killed on both sides, millions upon millions of them.

The statue of Churchill shows some swagger, but even he seems weighed down by the enormity of his burden. The statue of Eisenhower reflects an American who brought troops to help and commanded everyone in victory, somewhat overwhelmed by his task.

A visitor might expect that a place with a name as grand as the Imperial War Museum would deal with all of the wars in which Britons fought, at least as far back as 1066 (albeit an unhappy event for the English). But it does not.

The museum was built to commemorate World War I, in which almost a million soldiers of the British Empire were killed. Later, it was expanded to include displays from World War II, in which the British lost close to a half-million soldiers. Now the collection of artifacts and documents has been expanded to include all of the conflicts involving Great Britain or the Commonwealth since 1914.

The collection is awesome for a couple of reasons. One is the enormous array of weaponry and gadgetry. There are tanks of every sort from the development of the first one, cannons of every size, military aircraft that seem fragile and barely likely to stay aloft in a room with a Polaris nuclear missile.

Tiny primitive submarines are in a room with a beautiful small wooden fishing boat, the Tamzine, which was among the armada of private vessels that went to Dunkirk to save the British expeditionary force trapped there at the beginning of World War II.

Some German items are in the collection, including World War II aircraft and the awful V1 and V2 rockets the Nazis used to terrorize London and southeast England, killing almost 9,000 people, mostly civilians. Elsewhere, the casing for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima is on display.

The other stunning dimension of the whole display is the obvious conclusion that man in the 20th century was far more adept at developing the weapons of war than at making sure they would never be necessary again.

Toward the end of the century - May 13, 1999 - the Dalai Lama visited the museum. Outside, in a garden, a stone monument is inscribed with what he had to say, part of which was this:

"It is in the interests of all of us on this planet to turn the next century into an era of peace and harmony. ... Human survival depends on living in harmony and on always choosing the path of nonviolence in resolving our differences."

It was a grand proposition, etched in stone in a most appropriate place, but four years into the 21st century it seems to have been ignored by the very powers that should know better.

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