Memorial Day year-to-year tends to follow the same format for most Americans. It is a day of remembrance and respect for those who paid the ultimate price for their country. As we do every year, many will bow their heads in unity for those who lost their lives due to war. How does this US-centric discussion have anything to do with China, you may wonder. The answer lies in Neil Halloran’s visualization of the immense number of casualties during World War II in his film, “The Fallen of World War Two.” (released Memorial Day 2015) This amazing data visualization takes the viewer through 18 minutes of chilling figures representing the death and suffering caused by a single war. But Halloran’s purpose is broader and more inspiring than just the reflection on war’s tragic price; he leaves the viewer to reflect on the relative lack of conflict since 1945: though all war is terrible, the “long peace” is amazing.
By “watching the numbers” Halloran provides us a narrative that provides some compelling, comparative meaning to the sheer scale of death [and] move us to keep the “long peace” goingBy referencing the stark juxtaposition between the number of casualties that continue to plague us today to the massive number (we’ve largely lost sight of) during the World War II era, the long peace is easier to see as something to celebrate. However, we mustn’t misconstrue the message nor devalue or dismiss the importance of Memorial Day. All countries, China and the U.S. included, have sacrificed lives in the name of war, both within and outside of country borders. So regardless of border lines, we can both bow our heads and celebrate peace this Memorial Day.
Only by watching the video can one fully understand the magnitude of Halloran’s vision. He provides death tolls of individual countries, certain battles, and time periods. In one particularly chilling scene he compares the losses of Poland and the Soviet Union. About 16% of the entire Polish population died in World War II. While this is the highest proportion of any country, the Soviet Union nevertheless withstood the largest number of casualties by far. In a deeply moving visualization, Halloran stuns the audience with a staggering representation of the nearly 10 to 20 million lives lost. These numbers provide a dark outlook on the past and future. Despite these horrific losses, we do not see today the kind of hatred between Germany and Russia as we continue to experience in the narrative between Japan and China. Much of that can be attributed to the slow process of rebuilding Europe which took place in the course of the Cold War in Europe in ways which were not possible to replicate in the Asia Pacific after the war. Despite everything, it brings hope knowing that rich countries have not fought other rich countries since WWII.
Halloran notes that such a period of peace between the so-called “great powers” hasn’t occurred since the Roman Empire. As our world becomes more globalized and interdependent, will China join the ranks as the “great power” to extend the time of Peace? Time will tell.
Halloran provides an optimistic narrative with his final comment, “So, if watching the news doesn’t make us feel hopeful about where things are heading, watching the numbers might.” He alludes to our daily international news as an extension of pessimistic outlooks on the world. Reports consistently tend to echo repetitive stories to the point where the number fades into meaninglessness: 5 deaths, 50 deaths, 500 deaths. In many ways the severity of the number no longer matters to us. We lose some focus on remembering what was once truly terrible in our human story by this routine generality that death and fighting exist in the world. As terrible as that is in itself, we sometimes think things haven’t gotten any better as we ignorantly label such-and-such terrible leader as “like Hitler”.
And what does matter, like international agreements on peace and progress for example, is rarely highlighted as “breaking news.” So, by “watching the numbers” Halloran provides us a narrative that provides some compelling, comparative meaning to the sheer scale of death before 1945. When observed and understood as altogether a different level of conflict than we have seen since, the numbers can truly move us to keep the “long peace” going.
Ultimately, figuring out how to keep the long peace going specifically between America and China is the vision of The Tai Initiative.