So this week is full to the brim with retrospectives about the Tiananmen massacre, and the end of the country-wide movement urging transparency and political rights in China. What makes these anniversaries unusual is these events unfolded in front of the entire world media. One reason this week has so many reflections is that many prominent journalists – in America, Europe, Asia and everywhere else – were there, and saw the movement grow, evolve, and die.
Often these pieces talk about how my Millennial compatriots in China have little or no knowledge of what happened in 1989. What isn’t much talked about is how many stories of this movement have never been recorded. It wasn’t just Beijing, it was cities all over China. Millions of people participated in at least some part of the protests. They didn’t all get shot, and most of them never even got arrested. They faded back into their normal lives and kept their mouths shut. But they still remember; someone my age when the tanks rolled in on the night of June 3/4 are in their late 40s today. It’s not just about the victims, the dead and the disappeared. The anniversary is also about those who saw the movement dry up, and the country engage in a concerted effort to forget.
Each year Hong Kong holds the largest remembrance of what happened on June 4th. They have the luxury of remembering the past, a right not afforded to their mainland counterparts.
The year in which we live is unusual, in that it is an important anniversary of two separate wars beginning a long phase which is more like a meat grinder than a human endeavor. In 1864 U.S Grant did what no previous Union general did- get beat by Lee yet keep moving forward. Eventually he trapped Lee at Petersburg, south of Richmond, Virginia. The subsequent trench warfare would be repeated on a much larger scale starting in 1914. Both, to different groups of people, dispelled the idea of military glory and honor. War was dehumanizing, dirty, and the causalities were mostly pointless. Never had so many young men in their prime been sent to their deaths so casually, and without effect.
In a long view of history, it was imperial powers being unable to live with great colonial wealth in peace. The conflict was sparked due to Austro-Hungary’s attempt to keep firm control of the Balkans, and the reason Germany and other powers were so well-prepared to kill one another was the decades of geopolitical chess. Germany wanted to exploit more people abroad but showed up to the world stage with all the choices cuts picked.
Overall, the Western Front was fought in very nice country. In peacetime this was mostly productive farmland and small towns. People go there for natural beauty, yet by 1918 a vast swath of it looked like a dead moon. What this long-distance shot doesn’t show is that the no man’s land stopped anyone from burying bodies, so instead they just rotted, half buried by shrapnel and shell holes.
Dan Carlin, who did a similar series of podcasts about the Eastern Front of World War II, is presently doing a series about the Great War- Blueprint for Armageddon. Using a lot of diaries from regular soldiers, he captures how much optimism there was in the early going- adventure! Glory! Fun! That turned to terror, fear, and then a dull nihilism, where the threat of execution kept the frontlines from depleting completely. It’s recommended.