One of the most common ways to tally up the cost of the First World War is still to count the number of its casualties.

Consider 60,000 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone, including the poor lads of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who were cut to pieces at Beaumont-Hamel. By the time the battle was over four and a half months later, with no substantial gains on either side, the casualties had risen to more than one million.

The overall number is so enormous it's almost meaningless, especially when compared to today's standards of what constitutes an acceptable sacrifice of soldiers' limbs, lives, and sanity.

Thirty-seven million casualties in all (16 million dead, with six million of those civilians). That's more than four times the entire Canadian population back then.

It all started as one cliche: the War to End All Wars; it ended as another: the Mother of All Wars.

The war that spawned the modern world

It didn't just snuff out countless lives and with them an entire older order; it spawned the modern world with all its best and worst.

Royal Newfoundland Regiment departing St. John's 1914

The first recruits of the Newfoundland Regiment left St. John's in October 1914. (CBC)

Among the best you can include dry champagne, plastic surgery and prosthetics, canned food, the wrist watch, the spread of jazz and, to bring it closer to home, the birth of the Canadian identity.

Among the worst are chemical warfare, barbed wire, the rise and fall of fascism and communism, extreme nationalism, state propaganda and of course the monster Adolf Hitler, born on one of the war's battlefields.

Hitler's own version of how he came to see the light with which he took the world back into darkness was that he was blinded by a gas attack from which he recovered with a new understanding. 

According to a more recent but well-documented account it wasn't the gas which blinded him, it was battle trauma. He freaked out and underwent treatment for blindness brought on by hysteria. He was rehabilitated with the help of an experimental therapy to rebuild his shattered psyche. As we know, the therapy backfired.    

Hitler wasn't the only monster to come crawling out of the ashes of the Great War. There were Mussolini in Italy, Stalin in Russia, plus any number of lesser-known others all over the place. 

Spewing pestilence

Even after it was long over, the First World War kept spewing the pestilence of hateful politics upon the world. The warring and killing and downright exterminating continued. Twenty years later, the Second World War broke out. The death toll spiralled into the absurd.

The true cost of the Great War is that we're still fighting it and will continue to for some time to come.

We promise not to forget when we march to the local war memorial on the 11th of November each year to consummate another act of remembrance. Yet all we talk about is the price we paid in the number of our own dead, maimed, and broken. What we don't talk about is the fact that the war is still on.

Canada just joined it again with the decision to send CF-18 jet fighters to the Middle East.

The impossible political geography of the Middle East is almost entirely a product of the First World War and the perfidious politics of former colonial powers like Great Britain and France. Everything that was set in motion during and after the Great War has virtually guaranteed that the fires continue to burn in the Levant.

If the First World War was the great conflagration that burned much of the old world to the ground, the Middle East is one of its lasting hot spots we're still having a hard time putting out.

And there's no end in sight. Every time we go in there to douse the latest flames we leave the place in a more explosive state. 

They had no idea what they started back then. We have no idea how to put an end to it now.

Instead we sit back in the comfort of our own successful recoveries from the Great Darkness and shake our heads wondering why those people over there can't get their act together. Then we count our dead one more time and remember them as a worthy sacrifice because here, by the grace of God, we live in peace.

The true cost of the Great War is that we're still fighting it and will continue to for some time to come.