War, Prejudice, and Perspective: Hatred or Acceptance

Before I could get this posted, the news filled with reports of multiple Ukrainian takeovers outside Crimea. Russian fighter planes are buzzing US ships. The images, interviews, and use of force by pro-Russion Ukranians offer evidence that others who do not agreed are well-advised to hide their views. This is the stuff of jingo fever.

When World War I began one hundred years ago in 1914, it wasn’t called that, of course. In fact, the concept of a global  war engaging countries from both sides of the Atlantic was so outrageous it was commonly ( and ironically) called the Great War. Even after it ended, almost until the onset of World War II, it was called the Great War or the World War. Until then it was also called the war to end all wars, referring to its massive scope, loss of life, and horrendous practices like mustard gas and tench warfare.

hill-62-trenches british-machine-gun-unit overview-of-german-trench-and-bunker

As we know all too well, global wars were not ended. In the current political climate the opposite trend seems  true. My reflections here aren’t about the tendency for nations to ignore the lessons of the past. Sometimes they actually attempt to codify what they’ve learned, as this excerpt from Wikipedia notes:

  • After World War I, the Washington Arms Conference Treaty prohibited the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases. It was signed by the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy, but France objected to other provisions in the treaty and it never went into effect.
  • February 8, 1928: The Geneva Protocol enters into force, prohibiting the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” and “bacteriological methods of warfare”.

Granted, countries do ignore such standards, even when they have signed on to the agreements. But the ensuing international outrage has channels of recourse without resorting to armed attacks.

Instead I’m finding myself drawn to what seem to be inevitable patterns in human behavior. When the 9/11 attacks occurred in 2001, and in the many years since,  there has been sweeping (although not universal) prejudice and discrimination toward anyone perceived to be Muslim, Arabic, or in any way Middle Eastern in heritage. During the Viet Nam and Korean conflicts, anyone with Asian appearance could be subjected to open derision or subtle discrimination. This was an attitude easily adopted following the Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, a disgraceful blight on our nation’s past. After the First World War, German immigration was reduced to a trickle, and  those with German heritage were subject to scrutiny, with recent immigrants facing outright surveillance. During the Second World War  those with German heritage were keeping a very low profile in this country.

Few realize, though, that at the time of the First World War the United States had already experienced several decades of massive immigration, much of it from middle European countries. The craftsmanship and work ethic of German immigrants and others built our city halls and cathedrals, developed  breweries and bakeries, and farmed the land. Most German immigrants and their descendants were well-respected community members. German communities in urban American areas were so large and dense that many continued speaking German into the second or third generation.

Then the Great War began.

Just as in later years, anyone seen as German, by way of accent, surname, or admission, was considered the enemy by a large percentage of the American population. “Jingo Fever” overcame common sense, personal history, and plain facts to incite open hostility to the point of violence.

Jingo Fever, Crickhollow Books, 2011

Jingo Fever, Crickhollow Books, 2011

Historical novels, especially those as well written and researched as JINGO FEVER, by Stephanie Golightly Lowden, are able to portray  phenomena and social patterns like these on intimate levels that move the reader back in time and place and into the lives of seemingly real people. The perspective of one hundred years is an advantage, offering an opportunity to examine human interactions at a personal level but through the eyes of characters. This opens the door to discussion of parallels in other conflicts and in current events.

I chose the title of this post to avoid outright pessimism in favor of choice. I believe in the potential for people, individually and in society, to grow and improve. It won’t happen without conscious effort, though. Do you recall that old song from South Pacific, YOU’VE GOT TO BE CAREFULLY TAUGHT? (Click on the title to hear  Barbra Streisand sing it in a medley with CHILDREN WILL LISTEN.)

What Stephanie’s book does so well is to weave a story in which young people are caught up in these social struggles at a critical time in history and in their personal development. They wrestle with the burden of sorting through whose “truth” is actually true, of sorting out which adults can be believed, and how much and why. They confront the decision between accepting the status quo or making better, wiser, stronger choices.

The paths we choose in life rarely end where we intend, and yet their direction can lead to dangerous territory. It’s a shorter distance than we realize from stereotyping to prejudice, from patriotism to jingoism, from protectionism to occupation to internment to genocide. When books like this are written, read, discussed, and shared, those initial choices can guide future leaders down brighter paths.

To learn more about the plans to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, “Like” this FaceBook page and receive updates on events, historic photos, and memorials.


One Comment on “War, Prejudice, and Perspective: Hatred or Acceptance

  1. Pingback: World War I: Who Will Remember? | Sandy Brehl

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