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war, civilian deaths

The Seventy Million

How did so many miss the signs of war?

Words: Cassandra
Pictures: Hasan Almasi

The seventy million weren’t paying attention, really. They had other — more pressing — concerns. There were payments and tensions in their families and happy times sharing a meal with friends. The seventy million, in other words, were thinking of other things. So — they were surprised. When fate overtook them, they were having dinner. They were taking the children into the village. They were working: In fields, in factories, in shops. They were talking with the neighbors. They were hoping — hoping that things would get better.

They thought they knew the world. They had navigated life this far, hadn’t they? They had listened to their grandparents and parents and made rules for the children. They had gotten by.

So they were surprised. It seemed to come out of nowhere. A clanking sound in the distance, men emerging from the woods. There had been warnings, of course. With hindsight we can see that there were signs they should have noticed. It was obvious, really. Like dark clouds blowing fast across the sky. But the seventy million chose not to see. Instead, they said reassuring things to each other. They hoped. “Things can’t be this bad forever,” they said. “Things will improve.”

There was so much to do. And always they worried about paying: How to pay, when to pay, when to buy. As the summer sun set, the children ran in their nighties catching fireflies.

We turn our eyes away from human history. Like them, we choose to believe — despite the evidence—that the lust for war will never overwhelm the good sense of the people in charge.

There had been horror once, they’d heard the stories. But it would never come again, they knew. There were singing contests the next town over, and church celebrations, and gossip about who was sleeping with whom. There were concerns, but now was not the time to worry. It was a time to spoil their children, bring them sweets, lift them up, crooning and smiling, and look deep into their eyes.

So in the end they were surprised. When it finally came, their eyes flew wide. Again and again wives and daughters were dragged away, hard hands already grasping their breasts, tearing their clothes, while they looked wildly for the men they trusted for protection. They shrieked with fright and disbelief. How could this be happening? They would be assaulted by each man in the unit in turn and then killed.

Fathers watched in horror, knowing their own deaths were moments away, as their children, their hopes, their futures, their tenderest loves, were held screaming while a soldier put a gun to the back of their small skulls and their noses exploded in a spray of blood and brain matter.

In those last fleeting seconds some of them, some of the seventy million, thought, “Why didn’t we run? We could have saved ourselves. There were signs.” They tasted the gall of danger recognized too late.

Seventy million were overwhelmed and sucked under by the rising tide of passion for violence that was World War II. Seventy million died. Chinese, Russians, Germans, Poles, Belgians, Czechs, Filipinos — too many countries to name. They died in their millions. Not just ones and twos. Millions. Some were soldiers. Some even volunteered. But most were not. Most were just people living their lives until the day war suddenly, unexpectedly overtook them. And then they were limp piles of flesh leaking blood.

It’s easy to shake our heads now. We look back and think they should have known. They should have done this or that — hidden the money, sent their children away, left on a boat while they still had time. But we should not judge the seventy million too harshly. Averting your eyes from danger, hoping vainly for the best, is a very human impulse. We are all human, and they were not so terribly different from us. We both have had the chance to read the truth that lies open on the pages of history — we and they — the truth that humans change only slowly, that it takes thousands of years, and that we are still in love with war. 

In a way, we are like them. We push uncomfortable thoughts out of our minds. The warning signs. Anger and violence and words from leaders that seem to portend a rising tide of war. We gossip and hope for love and watch videos instead of the news. Like them, we tell ourselves comforting lies. “We’re different,” we say. “We are too civilized. That kind of war will never come again.” We turn our eyes away from human history. Like them, we choose to believe — despite the evidence—that the lust for war will never overwhelm the good sense of the people in charge.

So we should be generous — we should not censor them. After all, they paid for their foolishness. And we are not so different from them. Except in the type of weapons we have. Of course, our weapons are different. Our weapons are newer and more powerful and far more destructive. That is one difference that separates us from them. When war comes we will also be surprised — like them — but our destruction will be greater. Much greater.

Someday, in distant years, when civilization has recovered enough for people to grow feckless again, when they think again of their pleasure and forget the need for steady watching — for vigilance and realism — perhaps there will be another Cassandra, another seer who despairingly speaks an unwelcome warning. But her message will be different. She will not tell a tale of seventy million that died. She will tell of four hundred million, or five hundred million, or, sadly, perhaps even more.

Cassandra, the anonymous author of this piece, is a prophetess who received the gift of foretelling events from the god Apollo, but when she refused to sleep with him, had a spell cast on her so that no one would ever believe her prophecies — even though they were true.


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