The State of Aloha

From our vantage point, the highly mechanized armed conflict among the nations and empires that ravaged most of Europe and parts of Asia, Africa and, yes, even the Pacific, seems like a remote and, for many, a forgotten war. Not a single veteran from this war remains alive today.

We call it World War I or the First World War because it is the first major war of the 20th century and was quickly dwarfed by the worldwide conflict that followed it: World War II.

It’s only natural that contemporaries of the First World War had a different view. It’s hard for us to realize how catastrophic it was for those who witnessed it, felt the impact of the physically and psychologically damaged soldiers who returned home, and mourned the loss of millions who died. The world had never seen destruction like this. Sadly, this was only the beginning. World War I was followed by a clash of ideologies, wars of total annihilation, and the paranoia of a Cold War descending across the globe.

But in its day, the conflict was seen as the end of something rather than the start. Up until that point, European powers tended to move gradually and steadily. The 19th century has been often called by historians as the long 19th century because its trends, culture and patterns lasted more than a decade after 1899.

What made this war different and what made it the starting point of the 20th century is that, unlike the wars before it, this war was a highly industrial war.

It began with the shocking assassination of the heir to a now non-existent empire in Sarajevo. It quickly drew the European powers into a war that introduced machine guns, tanks, fighter planes and poisonous gas. The war also saw the first massive execution of civilians. The Ottoman Turks were responsible for the ghastly execution of 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915. (Turkey still refuses to call it genocide.)

And in the Western Front, entire armies were stuck in a deadly and dismal stalemate of trench warfare. Hundreds would die to advance the front line against the enemy only a few feet. And then hundreds more would die only to lose the same ground.

Soldiers returning home found the death and destruction pointless and were left weary and nihilistic. This war was certainly new and earned the name the Great War or “the war to end all wars.”

In 1917, the United States joined the English and the French and sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the front line. Just like its allies calling up troops from their colonies, the United States drew on communities from its outlying territories like Hawaii.

The islands themselves felt the effects of the war. The Germans used the war to satisfy their imperialist urgings and briefly occupied Samoa shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914. The nearby English protectorates of New Zealand, Australia and Fiji mobilized their armed forces and took control of Samoa once again. The Germans departed and attacked the French in Tahiti by bombing Papeete before heading to safer ports in South America.

By the time the United States entered the war three years later, German submarines and ships still trolled Pacific waters. German ships were seized in Honolulu, and Fijian soldiers passed through on their way to European fronts.

This was the first time locals from the islands fought and died as American citizens in a foreign war. If you find yourself in Wailuku with nothing to do, you should go over to War Memorial Gym next to Baldwin High School at the bottom of the hill. At the entrance of the gym is the concrete memorial featuring a long rectangular piece of abstract art.

Below the art piece is a long list of names. Those are the names of the dead soldiers from Maui County who died in combat. The list begins with three men who were killed in World War I.

This is not the only memorial. The most well-known one rests on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki. After the war and before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States along with the rest of the world was trying to make sense of the large-scale destruction and death unleashed by modern weaponry. In the 1920s, memorials were erected all over the world, from small towns deep in the foothills of Italy all the way to Waikiki Beach.

The territorial Legislature released funds to construct a memorial swimming pool as a place for the public to gather in remembrance of those who died in the great war. The result was the 1927 opening of the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial, a saltwater swimming pool. The entrance to the pool is a tall, stately concrete archway in the Beaux-Arts style complete with eagles and columns.

It remained open for nearly 50 years and now is a dangerous structure slowly sinking into the ocean. It remains a sad symbol for the war it was devoted to memorialize that has slipped beyond living memory and is cracking and crumbling with age.

The day the guns stopped — Nov. 11, 1918 — was observed as Armistice Day and later became Veterans Day to honor those who survived more recent conflicts. But it’s more than that. It is the start of the modern era in which all of us were born.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer now working out of the Public Defenders Office who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”