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.