Last Monday marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First Word War. It was a period of bloodletting unsurpassed in history. Nearly 10 million died from combat and probably double that from associated causes. None of the 65 million who served in that war are still alive (1).

It is curious to remember that my mother-in-law and aunt who both died this year at 100 were babies when the war began. My mother was a child of four and in Finland when the war began. My grandmother brought her home to the US before the seas were unsafe due to submarines and blockade.

Wars bring disruption, dislocation, disease and violent death. It would seem a safe assumption to say that war is a health threat and that anyone wishing to live into old age (and hence be a legitimate subject of this column) would do well to work against the causes of war in our times.

I believe war is a mental health problem. While the news is full of apologists for the inevitability of wars due to economic, cultural, social, or political causes, in the final analysis resorting to killing each other is a crazy act and not different from the most demented, psychotic murderer in civilian life. Our inability to stop or cure such violent acts leads to our condoning self-defense and creating a cycle of mutual killing that only now is being seen as a tragedy for both sides.

There was a moment in December 1914, around Christmas time, when the men in the trenches in Flanders put down the guns, crossed into no-man’s-land and engaged in peaceful pursuits. They talked, exchanged food and smokes, played games, buried the dead, and generally behaved in an un-war-like fashion (2). The generals soon put a stop to this foolishness, but for a brief moment there was a pause in the madness.


  1. List of last surviving World War I veterans by country. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
  2. Weintraub, S. Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. The Free Press, N. Y., 2001. Available from:

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Rodger Marion, Ph.D. is UTMB Distinguished Teaching Professor and Senior Fellow in the Sealy Center on Aging. Those with time on their hands might want to follow his current film project at