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I have just finished reading Why World War I Resonates, an op ed in today's New York Times by British novelist William Boyd.  I urge all here to take the time to read it carefully.  

Let me begin by offering most of one paragraph which caught my attention, especially in light of the recent movies and television shows that have a connection with the Great War.  Boyd is explaining our ongoing obsession with that war:  

To our modern sensibilities it defies credulity that for more than four years European armies faced one another in a 500-mile line of trenches, stretching from the Belgian coast to the border of Switzerland. The war was also fought in other arenas — in Galicia, Italy, the Bosporus, Mesopotamia, East and West Africa, in naval battles on many oceans — but it is the Western Front and trench warfare that define the war in memory. It was a deadly war of attrition in which millions of soldiers on both sides slogged through the mud of no man’s land to meet their deaths in withering blasts of machine-gun fire and artillery. And at the end of four years and with about nine million troops dead, the two opposing forces were essentially where they were when they started.

As I read these words, I heard a voice saying "but what about Iran and Iraq?"  Does it still defy credulity when two modern nations can have such a bloodbath?  Or what of some of the horrors of World War II?  Here I think of the Siege of Leningrad, or the ongoing Battle of Kursk in which there were, over a million casualties, or of Stalingrad?  In that War, known in the old Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War, the USSR suffered almost 11 million dead.

So as I continued to read, I continued to reflect about war. . . .

I thought of stupidity of Generals and the death and destruction they caused.  I reflect back to Attenborough's wonderful film "Oh What A Lovely War" with a British General, I believe Haig, praying that God would give him a victory before the Americans arrived.   Then I read again the figures for our nation for our brief participation in The Great War:  

Some 117,000 American servicemen died in the 19 months of United States participation in World War I — more than twice as many as in Vietnam, nearly 20 times as many as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 Consider if you would the pace of that dying.

Yet Americans really do not know the true cost of war.  Again, from Boyd:  

No society today would accept such a horrendous casualty count. At the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916, the British Army suffered 60,000 dead and wounded — in one day. It was arguably the worst butcher’s bill in military history, of army versus army. There is a very real sense in which the modern world — our world — was born between 1914 and 1918. Something changed in human sensibility. Soldiers wouldn’t be willing to engage in such slaughter. Toward the end of the First World War, even, tolerance for past norms had begun to end. In 1917, much of the French Army mutinied and refused to attack. They would defend but not attack. The days of cannon fodder were over forever as a result of that war, which is a further reason artists try to re-imagine it constantly.

Would that Boyd were right, that soldiers would be unwilling to again engage in such brutality.

Now?  We are in our own uniquely American fashion finding ways of killing without causing the suffering to troops that is an inevitable part of combat, whether we call it shell shock or PTSD.  Remember, in the 2nd World War one reason for the Nazis to turn to gas chambers was that the troops involved in shooting those being exterminated were suffering as a result.  And remember as well that it is often a part of military training to indoctrinate one's legions to see the opponent as less than human at the same time as portraying the enemy as viciously evil and dangerous, all the more to make the members of those legions more willing to kill.  So we as a nation learned to bomb from 20.000 feet or more, raining destruction with little risk to those carrying it out.  Now we have "perfected" out "art" so that the operators of drones do not even have to be in the same hemisphere as is the death and destruction cause by their operations at a computer console in the Southwestern United States.  

We glorify war.  I understand this.  Lest some be willing to go into war there is the risk of being overrun.  We honor those who - supposedly in our name and on our behalf - take on the tasks of violence, of killing and destruction.

The language of war permeates our culture.  There are politicians who use it in advocating for their "cause" -  how different is the demeaning of political opponents and positing them as "other" than what I experienced at Parris Island in 1965, where we had drilled into us, even those of us whose roots were from Asia, that our opponents were Gooks, Slopes and Dinks?

Boyd speaks of poets, and I will return to one he references.  We have had our own poets, perhaps not with the concerted power of the British poets of the Great War -  Sassoon, Brooke, Owen - or the great Canadian author of In Flanders Field, Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD.  Still,  perhaps you might take the time to ponder words written during Vietnam, by Bob Dylan, "With God On Our Side" from which I quote only the final two stanzas:  

Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

After the Great War, for a while, it might have seemed as if the world, at least Europe and North America and Japan, took a step back, attempted to find a way to prevent war such as they had just experienced, would never again happen.  Yet the efforts were futile, small wars continued, some became bigger and embroiled outside parties, we saw the use of violence for empire and more in Ethiopia, in Spain, in Manchuria, and just as the world had careened towards the Great War in the late teens of the 20th century, the 1930's saw a similar careening only two decades later, with the "real war" beginning les than 21 years after the Armistice of the War to End All Wars.  Think how many were in the military for both, who perhaps should have known better, yet could not prevent the horror of yet another war, one in which the civilian death and destruction became unbelievable, with leaders on both sides justifying the horrors that occurred -  bombing of cities, use of incendiaries to create firestorms that destroyed entire cities, finally the nuclear annihilation of two Japanese cities, one (Nagasaki) ironically the center of a religion dedicated to one known as the Prince of Peace.

If I am honest with myself, I can see within myself the tendency towards blood lust that can so easily fuel the horror of war.  I know I can be prone to vengeance, wanting to take two eyes for the one my side may have lost.  The words spoken by Sean Connery in his Oscar-winning role also resonate in my mind:

You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?
  Too many of us, myself included, can easily see ourselves on the side of Malone and Ness, with those opposing us as Capone, and justify "the Chicago Way" or its equivalence, in our politics, in our business endeavors, and - if there is a God may he forgive us - in our geopolitics.

When I taught history and got to the period of World War I, I used to do an exercise.  I would have all my students stand and count off by 3s, except if they were a 3, they said nothing and simply sat down.  At the end of this brief exercise I explained why I had done it - that in many towns in Britain and France that had been the death toll among those men of military age in the Great War, sometimes far worse.  

We sometimes are taken back by the degree of loss some suffer.  We named a destroyer The Sullivans after 5 brothers who died in WWII when the USS Juneau was sunk by a Japanese submarine.  The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford Virginia is in that small Virginia town because on June 6, 1944, 19 of its sons, members of Company A, 116th Infantry of the Big Red One, died on Omaha Beach.  During the Normandy campaign, 4 more from Bedford died, a total of 23 from a town then with a population of about 3400.  

Too often we are too casual with our language, with our intimations that we are prepared to use violence - not merely of language but of severe force.  We only seem to remember the cost afterward, and then too often rationalize what we have done by claiming the other side was worse, or they started it, or we prevented even greater horrors.  I have found myself doing this.  

I said "rationalize" rather than "justify" because too often, were we fully honest, we would realize that what we have done is not fully justifiable.

After the Great War the use of poison gas was in theory banned by international convention.  Somehow that weapon seemed to horrible, even as we do not seem willing to similarly ban the use of weapons that disperse killing and crippling radiation.

I want to end with one of the most powerful anti-war poems ever.  It is by Wilfred Owen, whose poetry I first encountered as a school student, not because it was covered in English classes, but because his words were part of the text of one of the greatest masterworks of the 20th Century, the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten, written as a commission for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, the work premiering in the early 1960s while I was in high school.  The old Cathedral had been destroyed by a bombing raid the British knew was coming, because they had broken the German codes.  Churchill would not notify the city nor evacuate lest the Germans realize their codes had been broken.  Such are the horrible decisions people make when fighting a war.  The premiere was sung by masters from three major combatant nations, Soprano Galina Vishnevskaia from the USSR. baritone Dietrich Fischer-Diskau from Germany, tenor Peter Pears (the companion of the composer) from the UK.

I knew the words spoke to me as powerfully as did the music.  Somehow they did not speak loudly enough, for in a few years, in the midst of Vietnam, i dropped out of college and enlisted in the Marine Corps.  I learned how to kill, with rifle, bayonet and bare hands.  I never saw combat.  I never applied those skills in a deadly fashion.  Yet  as i realized even at the time, even that training, far more limited and reshaping than that of many of my companions in boot camp who went on to the infantry or even to Recon, affected me, made me perhaps more dangerous to society.

As part of our training we were exposed to a gas attack.  We were in a van with gas mask on, CS tear gas was pumped in, and we had to take off our masks.  While I have never been waterboarded, the experience of breathing in that "non-lethal" gas was horrifying:  it felt as if I were choking to death, my eyes more than watered, to the point that i could not see clearly.  This was stuff more powerful than the gas then used by police departments as a means of crowd control.  

Imagine that experience.  

Now imagine attack with Chlorine gas, which can kill you because you cannot get oxygen.  

Or mustard gas, which can kill you being absorbed through your skin.

Now you are ready to read:

Dulce et Decorum Est     
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
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

I remember once a four star officer, whose name I cannot recall, saying that if the military has to go to war, it has failed in its purpose.

I also recall a Russian Orthodox monk who wrote of his time living in a cave during the 2nd World War that he prayed that the less evil side might win.

War is always evil, no matter how we try to justify it.

People always suffer.

I can think of the words of a man whose birthday was this week.  Robert E. Lee supposedly said to General Longstreet at Fredericksburg, watching the slaughter his forces imposed upon the attacking Union forces,  "It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it."

But we are too fond of it.  It is not just our generals and our politicians.  It is all of us.

So again I repeat the words from Owen:

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.

and offer my fervent hope, prayer, beseeching word:


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