World War I, the Death of Chivalry, and the False End of War

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

W.J. Astore

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of World War I.  Today in my daily “alert” from The New York Times, there are five articles related to the war.  Steven Erlanger writes about how the war brought fundamental changes to the world; Jim Yardley writes about the Yanks in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918; Alison Smale recounts the costs of German militarism, then and today; John F. Burns raises the specter of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination (on June 28th, 1914) of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and its legacies in the Balkans and specifically in Bosnia; and Tim Arango recaptures the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 and how it forged national identities among the Turks and Australians.

An immensely destructive war, World War I saw the full application of mass production and the machine age applied to warfare.  Mass production enabled mass mobilization as well as mass destruction; the machine age enabled the machine gun and automated death on such a massive scale that bodies were collected in ossuaries, boneyards of doomed youth.

Four decades ago, Paul Fussell famously captured the loss of idealism that accompanied mass death on an industrial scale in his book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).  As Fussell noted in a separate essay on “The Fate of Chivalry,” idealistic codes of chivalry, popular in the Victorian age, became “ludicrously inappropriate” in World War I, defeated entirely by “poison gas, zeppelin raids on civilians, the machine gun, and unrestricted submarine warfare, not to mention such very unchivalric experiences as soldiers’ passively trembling under artillery shelling hour after hour or soiling their trousers for weeks with acute dysentery (sometimes requiring the cutting of large holes in the rear of their clothing), or milking down their penises monthly before the eyes of bored and contemptuous medical officers alert for unreported gonorrheal discharges.”

Wilfred Owen, a British officer and war poet, condemned the “old lie” of Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country), in his famous poem, which concludes:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Amazingly, the ideal of military service and war as ennobling, even liberating, survived World War I and is thriving today, most notably in the United States.  The “doomed youth” of World War I, marching off to mass death, have become the universal heroes of the American moment, to be sent to places like Iraq as liberators.

We would do well to recall that World War I, a “war to end all wars,” has led only to new wars, with today’s unrest in the Middle East connected to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and conflicting agreements made at the time by manipulative power players like Great Britain and France.

Once again, at least in the United States, the cry is for more military action in the Middle East – more killing – as a solution to complex political, social, economic, and religious problems.  Those who are most strident in sending in more bombs, if not more troops, are usually those “donkeys” who are well past military age themselves, and most concerned about appearing tough and decisive.  Great believers in the utility of war, they seem to have no regard for the big lesson of World War I: the utter unpredictability as well as the horrifying destructiveness of modern, machine-age war.

All sides marched to war in the summer of 1914 looking ahead to decisive victories.  The fighting was supposed to be over by Christmas, and it was: well, not 1914, but 1918.  The result?  Four empires in ruin, ten million dead, and legacies of massive destruction and revolutionary change that we’re still coming to grips with.

And yet despite all this there are still those who call for more weapons and more war.  In the U.S. they are held up as serious and respectable statesmen.  Yet they are merely old men propagating old lies.

If they are so ardent for some desperate glory, let them take up the lance and charge forth in foreign fields.  Until they do, let’s hear no talk of more weapons and more war.

4 thoughts on “World War I, the Death of Chivalry, and the False End of War

  1. Mike an I were raised in the same orphan home. We both went straight from the orphan home into WW II. I into the Army Air corps, Mike into the infantry. He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and and was sent to Berga, a concentration camp that Jewish POW’s were tortured in. This is a poem he wrote.
    By Myron Swack, Ph.D. 106th Division, Bulge/Berga Survivor

    I am sad on every Veteran’s Day.
    I remember the horror of war,
    I remember being on the front line.
    It was the coldest winter in the Ardennes Mountains in 1944-45.
    I remember the high casualty rate.
    War is an ugly, ugly scene.
    It begins ugly and it gets worse.
    I remember losing my closest friends
    And seeing their bodies.
    I remember how hungry I was and
    How cold my feet were.
    I remember being captured by the Germans.
    I remember being taken by cattle car to prison camp.
    I remember the hell of being a prisoner.
    I remember escaping and sneaking through
    Germany back to the American lines.
    I remember the ambulance and the hospital.


    For those chickenhawk politicians, both Republican and Democrats, who lack the courage to vote against
    war funding let them know how children like Mike had to overcome the horror of the wars they fund.

  2. Unfortunately, this is the reality: “War…begins ugly and it gets worse.” Ah, but every time the US sends bombs, cruise missiles and killer drones against the people of another nation, a large portion of the American populace flies flags from their vehicle antennae and puts yellow “Support Our Troops” stickers on them as well. Yellow ribbons tied around the old oak tree. At the outset, war is great, war is awesome, war is GOOD, war is even beautiful, the very opposite of ugly, because we’re the GOOD GUYS. At the outset of World War I masses of people poured into the streets of the capitals of all the major powers involved, waving their national flags to send their boys off to take part in the glorious undertaking. Politicians who called themselves Socialists got swept up in the patriotic fervor. In Russia they even accepted posts in the government that vowed to continue to fight against Germany. Lenin and company would have a surprise for these pathetic sell-outs in short order.

    Is Barack Obama a bloodthirsty warmonger, taken as an individual human being? I hardly think so. Unfortunately, though, his job as POTUS requires him to act in the interests of the Ruling Class and he has committed himself 110% to play this role. Therefore the reality of war–the suffering, needless destruction of infrastructure and resources–all this will continue because it is deemed necessary to defend “the vital interests of the United States.” That is to say, the interests of “the 1%.” Those who, as Mr. Astore so accurately pointed out, don’t personally shoulder arms and go marching off into the hellfire.

    Is there a solution? Yes, but the very word is too terrible for the American masses to contemplate, even though Thomas Jefferson believed that as the young nation moved forward through history each generation would more or less have its own. That terrible word, of course, is revolution. I am for it but I don’t expect to see it in my dwindling lifetime. The “doomsday preppers” who already have their bunkers stocked to try to ride out the storm are just a tad ahead of events.

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