“Will We Ever Learn?”

“What a disappointment the 20th Century has been. How terrible and melancholy is the long series of disastrous events that have darkened its first 20 years. We have seen in every country a dissolution, a weakening of bonds, a challenge to those principles, a decay of faith, an abridgement of hope upon which the structure and ultimate existence of civilized society depends.”

And the speaker was none other than our revered former leader, Winston Churchill, holding forth in 1921 on the terrible state of the world in the century that had opened with such great promise 21 years earlier. It would be another quarter century and a Second World War before Churchill, then prime minister could shake the nation he loved from the world-wide “terrible melancholy” wrought by the war to end all wars.

It wasn’t just at home in England, a once-proud sapphire of Empire set in a silver sea, that melancholy prevailed. In Russia, there was bloody revolution and five million dead from starvation. In Italy, the people were entranced with the military triumphs of a comic-opera caricature called Mussolini over impoverished small and economically deprived nations.

In Germany, Hitler was triumphantly uniting his First World War shattered country before leading it to destruction beyond belief. The end to his reign of terror was costly beyond reckoning in human life and money to every nation involved.

Amazingly, humanity made progress in seemingly every field of science, but little in the fields of tolerance and simple kindness.

The 20th Century marked 100 years of scientific marvels progressing to manned flights to the Moon and now surging beyond to check out Mars; and medical science, which can and does work miracles in holding at bay diseases that were once automatic death sentences.

There was a brief time when our young songwriters stirred our thinking, reminding us of our individual responsibilities to each other, but that too soon got swamped and drowned in the clash of pounding percussions.

Hard to believe that not too long ago, we sang songs about becoming bridges over troubled waters. We asked ourselves why we seemed happy to embark on another war every few years or so – but couldn’t find time to answer the now age-old question posed in the modern pop ballad “Wage War – Will We Ever Learn?” 

Maybe you can remember its opening lines of seeing things “face to face, but never eye to eye … all this vision but we’re going blind from all the emptiness we feel inside.”

Or the warning that “we hate what we don’t know, refusing to let go … we let it burn, we let it burn. Oh, will we ever learn?”


  1. The year before Churchill uttered his dispiriting observation the legendary Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, published The Second Coming, a poem predicting the century’s devastations. Here is the first stanza:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

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