Thursday, November 11, 2004

Flander's Fields

Well, somewhere it will soon be the 11th hour of the 11th Day and the day arranged to commemorate the end of "The War (that failed) to end all War" will be commemorated.

Jingoism is nothing new in America, nor many other spots of the world. It took the utter devistation of the Second World War for it to finally dissipate in most of Europe (only took 1,000 years).

But the death knell of jingoism started with the slaughter of the First World War. A bloody bitter nightmare that lasted over five years and killed millions, often tens of thousands in a single day, and only finally, in reality ended in 1945.

The bloody, useless, slaughter was the primary reason that neither France nor Britain was able to stand up to Germany a generation later. Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, all were too fresh on the minds of both countries. The battle death totals are staggering:

On the first day of the Somme in 1916, the British lost 58,000 men. That is the equivalent of U.S. Battle Deaths in the Vietnam Conflict, and half the total of American deaths in the First World War, 116,000 in about one year of involvement.

In one battle, Caparetto, the Italian Army had 275,000 soldiers captured.

At the Battle of Verdun, 32,000,000 artillery shells were launched by the Germans and French. Verdun which lasted from February through the end of 1916, led to 1,000,000 French and German casualties.

In the course of the war, 8,300,000 Combatants were killed; another 7,000,000 were maimed for life of the 20,000,000 or so that were wounded in some fashion. 8,000,000 civilians died from non-disease related causes.

The national totals are staggering:

325,000 . . . . . . . . .Turkish military killed
460,000 . . . . . . . . .Italian military killed
1,000,000 plus . . . . . British and Commonwealth military killed
1,200,000 . . . . . . . .Austro-Hungarian military killed
1,385,000 . . . . . . . .French military killed
1,700,000 . . . . . . . .Russian military killed
1,808,000 . . . . . . . .German military killed

The war and its tragedy, especially its constant misery and evident criminal foolishness amongst those in the trenches gave birth, as does most prolonged human suffering to great prose. Especially poetry. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen were among the English poets. The most famous poem of the war came from a Canadian, John McCrae:

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.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Those who tend to glorify war, as many of those now leading our country, have rarely fought in them. Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, almost the whole lot of them (except for the ostracized Powell) never experienced the tragedy of futile death, the way it not only snuffs out the promise of young life, but permanently stains the soul of those who live through it. Powell's involvement in the aftermath of My Lai (and not a glorious involvement), if nothing else, showed him the way in which murderous futility can make men deprived, unthinking, murderers.

No, war is all "strategy" and the "high arching" goal to them. The soldier is the "noble" faceless tool of the end. No one considers for a moment that so many nations, including criminally wrong nations thought the same way. Look at German art in the late 1930s and note the glorification of the faceless soldier of the Wehrmacht.

Somewhere in Iraq now, is a future Wilfred Owen. One probably speaks english and another speaks arabic. Meanwhile, Bush can barely put a limerick together.

The purpose of Veteran's Day is not to celebrate the victory of the soldier, their accomplishment of a policy end. But to remember those who sacrificed, and risked their lives. Often, in our nation's history, these losses have been for nefarious or useless ends (Mexican-American War and Vietnam respectively), as well as for noble ones.

War creates heros, but mostly it creates victims. The former is usually what politicians like Bush want to celebrate, but it is the latter that is the reality we do not like to dwell upon.

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