In the trenches.
Ninety years ago, the stupidest and wickedest war in human history came to a formal end. I say formal end because even as the surrender was signed, millions continued to go hungry and intermittent conflicts plagued Europe and Asia. And in fact, the botched peace would lead to a larger and more murderous war.
While it’s fit and proper to remember those killed and maimed during the war, soldiers and civilians alike, we shouldn’t forget the criminal policies that led to the bloodshed.
Winston Churchill was half right when he predicted in 1901 that “the wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.” World War I started as a traditional war of kings, caused by the machinations and alliance systems created by the European elites. These statesman were interested in the age-old game of territory and hegemony. Unfortunately they unleashed their war during a democratic age. Once blood started flowing, it proved impossible to walk back to a diplomatic settlement: the people on all sides of the conflict felt they had sacrificed too much for a return to the status quo. Total victory became the goal.
It’s easier for a dictatorship to end a war than for a democracy to do so. A dictator can always swallow his pride and sign a peace treaty. Democratic leaders have to contend with citizens who have lost their sons and daughters, martyrs whose blood cries out for vengence. That’s one reason it was so difficult for the United States to extricate itself from Viet Nam in the 1960s and 1970s, and why Iraq and Afghanistan remain quagmires today.
The lesson here is that once you start a war, you can never know how it will end. That’s why sane adults are always reluctant to go to war, reserving mass violence for a last or near last resort. One reason opposed the Iraq war in 2003 was that the example of World War I loomed large in my mind.
The Great War inspired much beautiful poetry. My preference is for war poems that are bitter and caustic, rather than elegiac. Below is an excerpt from Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Aside from Pound’s characteristic emphasis on usury, it’s very well done. Throughout the poem Pound is ironically reflecting on the familiar tag from Horace “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“Sweet and proper it is to die for your country”).
Pound was never soldier himself but he was, as Louis Menand pointed out recently in The New Yorker, “a war casualty.” Pound lost friends in the war, which in a very real sense drove him mad. Searching for solutions to social problems in crackpot theories, Pound was on the roat that took him to Mussolini and the bughouse.
But in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley we get an early glimpse of how the war effect Pound, while his mind was still sound:
These fought in any case,
And some believing,
pro domo, in any case…Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some, pro patria,
non “dulce” not “et decor”…
walked eye-deep in hell
believing old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
fair cheeks, and fine bodies;fortitude as never beforefrankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.V
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.