Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Great War: So Much Sorrow and for What? Lessons from the Horror.

As the 20th century dawned, intellectual optimism ran rampant. True, the Industrial Age had its critics, but there was a general feeling that life was good, the the trajectory of human progress was upward bound.

When I was in college I used to talk with my grandmother about philosophy, science and technological change, and she would always say that she'd grown up in an amazing era. Born two years after Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers' first "manned flight", she saw the advent of the automobile age, radio, television, the evolution of transportation to include jet flights around the world and rockets to the moon--all of it astonishing and inconceivable as a child in rural West Virginia.

What she had escaped, growing up in the U.S., was the horror of that first experience of "total war" that rocked Europe, eventually inducing America to sacrifice its youth for a conflict that no one fully understood.

Two weeks ago I watched a series of lectures about "The Great War" and am reading a book titled "World War I: A Turning Point In Modern History." It's challenging to wrap one's mind around the degree of suffering this conflict generated. At the Battle of Verdun alone there were 800,000 casualties (dead and wounded). At the Somme, the Brits sent 60,000 young men to their death in the first day. Final tally of lost lives for Britain, France and Germany in these two battles was 1.2 million. And there was virtually no progress made in either front in these battles.

British soldiers returning from the Western front.
(It's awful to consider it but what was the strategy at Somme? "We'll keep sending our boys forward until the Germans' trigger fingers get tired.")

If you find these numbers are hard to grasp, think about this: one out of every two French men between the ages of 20 and 32 in 1914 were dead by the end of the war.

Of the 70 million soldiers who fought in this war, 9 million died. Equalling appalling: nearly 6 million civilians died as well.

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French soldier in the trenches on the Western Front.
What prompted me to revisit this war was the current eruption of violence these past weeks in response to the George Floyd fiasco, combined with the previous months of COVID-19 lockdown.

This brief blog post will note just a few of insights I gleaned from the this book by Jack Roth and the lectures by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius of the U of Tennessee.

* * * *

Here is a brief list of things that occurred beginning in 1914 that seem noteworthy.

1. When the year 1914 began, few people had the slightest inkling that by late summer all hell would break loose.  Few saw it coming. How many of you were expecting a pandemic and race riots this year?

2. The trigger event that unleashed the violence of that war was a terrorist act. The response by leaders of the various European nations caused tensions to escalate until all Europe was consumed. The earliest days of the conflict resulted in a power stalement. Instead of attempting to negotiate and make concessions, each side believed the only way out was to continue full bore until the other was annihilated.

Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front.
3. This was the first conflict involving entire societies mobilized to wage unrestrained war, devoting all their wealth, industries, institutions, and the lives of their citizens to win victory at any price. The Civil War here in the U.S. foreshadowed this on a smaller, but still devastating, scale.

4. The victors, being idealists, believed that when all was finished everything was tidily tied up. Aristocratic empires had been dethroned--Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey--and "democratic-sounding constitutions" put in place, most farcical being the Soviet Union.

5. By all accounts the war was a manmade disaster.  Who got the worst of it? Everyone got their share, but for the British--who for the previous century ruled 20% of the world's geography and 25% of the world's population and had adopted the role of global police--the sun finally began to set on the Empire. They would never be a world leader again, and their Colonial history would tarnish the glory that once animated them in the same way slavery has stained a measure of our own history.

6. Ironically, the American doughboys who helped bring an end to the war also brought a new strain of virus to Europe which spread everywhere with disastrous effect. Thinking it originated in Spain it was nicknamed the Spanish Flu. It was later determined to have originated in Kansas where our soldiers trained before transporting it to Europe.

Aerial photo of German (bottom and right) and British (upper left)
trenches in 1917 at battle of Loos. No man's land in between.
There were 35,000 miles of trenches dug during the war, all dug by hand. The French and Germans built fairly deep trenches with boardwalks so as to keep soldiers's feet dry as much as possible. The British, confident that these trenches would not be long occupied, built shallow trenches that filled with muck, that would became dreadfully inadequate. At some points enemy trenches were only 15 yards apart. (If you watch NFL football, that's a first down plus a five yard run.)

There are a number of expressions we use today that originated during this war. Here are a few:

"No Man's Land"
Trench Coats
"going over the top"
Life in the trenches

"Here today, gone tomorrow" came into use because so many soldiers were alive on day and gone the next.

The word "Cooties" first came into usage in the trenches. It was the British term for lice.

"Sniper" was another new word. In previous wars they were called sharpshooters.

"Shellshock" was another new word. At the Battle of Verdun the Germans opened with a bombardment of 2 million shells—more than in any engagement in history to that point—and the two sides eventually fired between 40 and 60 million shells over the next ten months. In this drawn out demolition that went nowhere there were 800,000 casualties.

* * * *
The senselessness of all that happened is astounding. The fear and suffering it generated feels incomprehensible.

In our world today we need leaders with integrity who see the need to de-escalate, who will use dialogue to build bridges, generate understanding, bring a new era of peace and prosperity for all. The last several weeks have revealed a powder-keg below the surface of our contemporary culture that is a threat to everything we've sacrificed to achieve.

Who speaks for peace?

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