by Barry Edelson
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'On Ne Passe Pas'

The Unlearnable Lessons of World War I


"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below."


At the site of the Battle of Verdun, east of Paris and not far from the German border, there is a large and unusual monument to the soldiers who died there in one of the longest and most deadly military engagements in human history. The Douament ossuary contains the remains of at least 130,000 French and German soldiers, who represent merely a fraction of the unknown hundreds of thousands who were sacrificed on the surrounding plains between February and December of 1916. Historians reckon that the battle claimed upwards of 750,000 casualties. Its thoughtless ferocity makes it impossible to know how many souls were lost; 300,000 were officially listed as missing. Combined, the two sides fired 26 million [sic] artillery shells at one another in the course of the fighting, the equivalent of six shells for every square meter of ground, thus reducing a large swath of the countryside to a barren, viscous mire of mud and clay, stripped of every shred of vegetation, leaving essentially a gigantic open cemetery containing an unending mass of partially buried bodies and parts of bodies which remained unrecovered until after the war. Forensic science was not yet sophisticated enough to distinguish the bones of the dead even by nationality, and so the bones of German and French soldiers are interred together, as befitting a battle and a war that today is generally thought to have been fought for no reasonable purpose whatsoever.

So much has been written about World War I that it seems nearly impossible to add anything of a human dimension to the countless array of exceptional books and films about the war that have been created in the last century, nor add an original historical point of view to a conflict whose appalling costs and consequences continue to plague the modern world. Remarque's iconic All Quiet on the Western Front, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, John Harris' Covenant with Death, and Pat Barker's Resurrection trilogy are just a few of the most memorable and searing accounts of the effect of the war on the innumerable individuals who were snared in its deadly embrace. Of course there is the great poetry written by the soldiers themselves, of which John McCrae's indelible lines quoted above are just one of many examples that attempted to impose some humanity on the unfathomable descent of Europe's advanced civilization into unimaginable barbarism. If these are not enough to reduce the reader to inconsolable despair, the stage production of War Horse was as emotionally devastating an experience as one could imagine in the theater; or one could watch Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, or Peter Weir's Gallipoli for further evidence of man's inexhaustible reservoir of folly and cruelty.

Once you have utterly lost your faith in humankind — as does Somerset Maugham's hero in The Razor's Edge, a war veteran whose life is warped by the shame and revulsion over what he witnessed on the battlefield — something inevitably reminds us that mankind is not entirely a product of violence and stupidity. In the telephoto lens of history, through which the relative position in time of distant events is largely lost to our sense of perspective, it is often shocking to discover the proximity of seemingly disparate moments. And so it comes as a surprisingly bitter revelation that the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal coincided almost exactly with the outbreak of World War I. The ceremony marking the passage of the first ship through the canal on August 15, 1914 was decidedly subdued, given the events unfolding in Europe. This was in stark contrast to the nationalist hoopla with which President Theodore Roosevelt enthusiastically took up the cause of building the canal a decade earlier, making good on the efforts of the French engineers whose first attempt to build the canal ended in failure — and in the deaths of 22,000 workers, mostly from yellow fever. The final result was, without argument, an unprecedented feat of engineering, and an example of the massing of human energy and imagination for a constructive purpose rather than the pointless destruction of one's enemies.

But the cynical view could of course put an entirely different gloss on the whole enterprise. America's overt support for the independence of Panama from Colombia, in exchange for long-term control over the Canal Zone, can be interpreted as imperialist meddling in a foreign nation for entirely selfish purposes. The deaths of so many workers — another 5,600 from disease and accidents in the American phase of building, to add to the appalling French total — is seen by some as an example of an increasingly mechanized industrial economy indiscriminately sacrificing 'little' people for the greater good and national glory. Furthermore, this mechanization is precisely what links the canal to the war: a vast machinery into which the vulnerable human body is thrown like just another capital input, resulting in death and disfiguration on a scale hitherto unknown. In the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist view, whether the result is a great human edifice or victory in war, graves are filled with thousands of those who gave their lives for causes in which they personally stood to gain almost nothing.

This maximalist view, while compelling on a human scale, taken to its logical conclusion would preclude the possibility of human advancement. Whatever shady geopolitical and financial manipulations made it possible, the Panama Canal has nonetheless been an extraordinary boon to world trade and consequently to the economic prosperity of many nations, not least our own. Would that we could say the same for World War I, the outcomes of which were even more disastrous than its vainglorious causes. That the completion of the canal was realized at precisely the moment when the great war machine was set to devour eight million young men of many nations may be no accident in purely industrial terms. Just two years earlier, in April 1912, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, shocking a civilized world that had come to believe its technological prowess had conquered both the land and the sea. Whatever hand-wringing may have accompanied that horrible loss did nothing to make the world's leaders in government and industry reconsider their unbounded faith in human progress, any more than the disappearance of an airliner today over the Indian Ocean has any effect on the orders already in queue at the big jet manufacturers, or the flight reservations made daily by travelers. The course of human history is only discernible in retrospect, and the lives and livelihoods of many billions of our fellow creatures are so intricately intertwined that it is no more possible for us to change the course of society by an act of will than it was possible for the kings and presidents and generals who plunged blindly into the Great War to see where it would lead them.

There is one lesson of World War I that is widely thought to have been learned: That smarter diplomacy could have overcome shallow considerations of national honor and prevented the war from breaking out in the first place. This was the impetus for the creation of the League of Nations and eventually the United Nations. The thinking goes that it is better for nations to have a place to talk things out, even if they seldom agree, rather than not talk at all. The problem with this approach, which sounds perfectly reasonable, is that it ignores the underlying reasons why wars occur. For that, we are forced to confront the more primitive aspects of our nature, which we suppose are buried along with our ancient forebears even though they boil to the surface on a sickeningly regular basis. Jacob Bronowski defined war in The Ascent of Man in the most simple terms possible: not as a human instinct, but a highly organized form of theft. Only the size of the armies and the sophistication of their weaponry separates small bands of marauding horsemen from the French and German armored divisions. From this perspective, every war in history makes a kind of awful sense: Country A wants something that Country B has — its land for food, its rivers or coastline for navigation, its people for slaves, its natural resources for industry — and sets out on a campaign of conquest to acquire it. The objective is never about the superficial justifications for battle — glory, honor, national greatness, moral superiority — but always about power. If my neighbor is more powerful than I am, I am vulnerable; therefore I must be strong enough to fend off his attack, or strong enough to invade him first and take what he has. And thus the history of warfare has been carried on from time immemorial.

Since World War II, our view of war has been shifted to accommodate what is generally called the "just war", that is, the confrontation of an enemy so vile that its victory would threaten the peace and freedom of the world. But there are few enemies as distinctly aggressive in their strategies and vicious in their tactical methods as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. We forget that many in Europe felt that Germany in 1914 posed just such a threat, and framed the war as a fight between civilized nations and a barbaric enemy. The overwrought allied propaganda against Germany depicted the Kaiser as a barely human despot (even though he was Queen Victoria's nephew and closely related to all the royal families of the continent) and the common German soldier as a heartless killer of women and babies. In the long view, this has been seen as absurdly exaggerated and may, ironically, have contributed to the reluctance of Britain and France to confront Hitler in the 1930s, so strong and recent was the memory of these hyperbolic depictions of cruelty. That the Nazis were in fact exceedingly cruel could also be overlooked because their overt justifications for war, such as 'lebensraum' (living space, i.e., land) sounded little different from the most oft-repeated rationales for war since ancient times. The recovery of Germany's national honor, trampled underfoot by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, would also not have rung hollow in the ears of those who fought in the first war, for whom the defense of 'honor' was first and foremost among the reasons proffered for allowing so many millions of soldiers to die for what appears to us in retrospect to be nothing at all.

In one of the more recent films about World War I, A Very Long Engagement, Audrey Tautou plays a young woman who tries to find out what happened to her fiancé, one of five French soldiers condemned to death for desertion and sent, unarmed, into no-man's land where they were presumed killed. Along her path of discovery, she visits in prison the girlfriend, played by Marion Cotillard, of one of the other condemned men. This other woman had become an assassin, coldly tracking down all of the officers responsible for her lover's death, until she is finally caught while attempting to kill a famous politician. Awaiting execution, she tells her visitor that a general (who she has already murdered) had received an order of reprieve for the five men from high command, but destroyed the order and let the men stumble to their almost certain deaths. Why would he do that? the young woman asks. "Because he was a dirty dog," the assassin says, "and dirty dogs play dirty."

This is yet another compelling reason why war should be avoided at all costs: because it unleashes the most horrific behavior, giving license to the most depraved members of society to inflict cruelty on their fellow men under the guise of patriotic fervor, and reducing even ordinarily decent people to commit otherwise unthinkable acts of violence. The 'bad egg' who abuses or kills prisoners, or is sadistic towards the soldiers in his own command, or massacres civilians under the cover of battle, is always painted as an isolated case. While we investigate and prosecute the miscreants, we pin medals on the chests of the truly brave and selfless to remind ourselves of the worthiness of our cause and the generosity of our spirit. But whenever we enter upon a new conflict, we always manage to forget that war is inseparable from brutality, and that even those marked as heroes are trained as killers and sent abroad to commit murder. Absent some way to remove from the human psyche the inbred ability and desire to inflict harm on others, and also eliminate the greed and lust for power that turns man against man in the pursuit of treasure and glory, the commemoration of World War I, for all its horrible and lasting after-effects, will ultimately be just another date on the calendar. And that vast, ghastly crypt at Verdun will be just another pile of old bones.


August 18, 2014


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.