No More Battlefield Flowers
By Stephen Tuttle | May 20, 2023
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…
John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and doctor, wrote those words during World War I (WWI) from the perspective of young men recently killed in battle. It became a memorial for all fallen soldiers in every war, and poppies became a symbol of remembrance for those soldiers.
(Flanders Fields, incidentally, is a real place, now a cemetery located in Belgium, one of eight such cemeteries located in Europe dedicated to those who fought and died in WWI. Similar cemeteries around the world honor many countries’ dead from all wars.)
This poem comes to mind as we celebrate Memorial Day, which began as Decoration Day in 1890, created by Union states as a way to remember and honor Civil War dead. An act of Congress turned it into Memorial Day in 1971 to honor all fallen U.S. troops.
Unfortunately, there have been far too many fallen troops from our country and elsewhere. After more than 6,000 years of what we call civilization, we’re still resolving disputes by killing each other. The war death totals just keep growing.
The first recorded war occurred in Mesopotamia in about 2700 BCE. (Historical Mesopotamia includes parts of what we now know as Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria.) The first that was reliably reported and included a body count took place in Megiddo, located in what is now northern Israel, in 1457 BCE. (Also known as Armageddon, Megiddo will be the site of the final battle of good versus evil, according to the Bible.)
If we use one common definition of war as organized, armed combat between identifiable adversaries resulting in at least 1,000 deaths and add up the various wartime body counts, the 20th century alone saw more than 100 million dead. Add the wars before that, and the death toll estimates range from 150 million to 1 billion according to “What Every Person Should Know About War” published in The New York Times.
They say that in the last 4,000 years, there have been only 268 years without significant wars. Reduce the death toll from 1,000 to 100 and, according to Quora, there has not been even a single year without war deaths in those same 4,000 years. The three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod catalogs 1,763 separate wars in that time, but they’ve omitted some of the “smaller” conflicts.
In the U.S. alone—and we are young by world history standards—we’ve experienced almost non-stop warfare of some sort.
The French and Indian War was part of the Seven Year War before we were even a country. Then there was our Revolutionary War and the endless American Indian Wars that started in 1810 with Tecumseh’s War and lasted until 1915 with the Bluff War in Utah and Colorado, all part of our efforts to totally eradicate those people who were already here when we arrived from Europe.
Then there was the War of 1812, which actually lasted until 1815, Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848), Bleeding Kansas War, Second Opium War (1856-1858), U.S. Civil War, Garza War (Texas and Mexico, 1891 – 1893), and another dozen wars and skirmishes before WWI, which was called the war to end all wars but did not. Skipping ahead, and touching on only major conflicts, there was World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and on and on and on.
All of which ignores the history of various wars in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.
Wars to settle foolish border disputes, wars of conquest, wars to colonize, wars to force religious beliefs on non-believers or different believers, the always popular civil wars and wars of expansion. Bad leadership, weak leadership, megalomaniacal leadership…history is overflowing with leaders of all sorts only too willing to send their citizens off to die for a cause those actually fighting might not even understand. In four millennia, instead of learning how to prevent or stop wars, we’ve only learned more efficient and effective ways of killing.
Even now, the barbarity of war is in evidence across the globe. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will provide new statistics on the destruction and depravity of war. And there are currently what pass for civil wars in Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Libya, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Mali, Somalia, and Syria, plus the never-ending wars in the Middle East.
Poppies, and other flowers, really did bloom and blow at Flanders and other WWI sites. Why? Because the shelling, horse traffic, and other equipment moving through previously undisturbed ground upturned the earth and released buried seeds.
Seeds uprooted by war provided flowers to honor those killed in the battles with bloodstained beauty. A Memorial Day with no new battlefields on which flowers grow would truly be worth celebrating.