‘The Somme set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War; brave helpless soldiers; blundering obstinate generals; nothing achieved.‘ A J P The First World War: An Illustrated History
The ‘war to end all wars’ didn’t. World War II followed within a generation precipitated by a severe and unjust treaty that gutted Germany, and the end of all wars was a preamble to the bloodiest century in human history. To most of us World War I seems as remote as Agincourt or Rome subduing Hannibal.
We may remember vaguely that the assassination of hapless Archduke Ferdinand precipitated the conflict, but the truth is far more complicated involving decades old alliances and animosities, ethnic nationalism, imperial ambitions, petty grievances of ambitious men, lust for power, and fear. It’s always fear in one form or another that leads to killing lots of people.
World War I employed 19th century tactics and 20th century weapons from machine guns and more accurate artillery to mustard and chlorine gas. I’m old enough to remember my Great Uncle John who lived the rest of his life with one lung after losing its left side companion to mustard gas in the trenches. World War I was a woodchipper into which brave and terrified men were ordered to rush with great enthusiasm.
And the trenches, oh. Ankle deep or worse with fetid water ripe with human waste and blood and body parts and no relief. Overwhelming pestilence, stink, and misery, then the whistle blows to signal the next suicidal assault and attempt to gain a hundred yards and take the next putrid trench in front of them currently occupied by other exhausted men with ruined feet at least as terrified as those screaming and charging into their guns. Again, and again. And again. Surge forward. The next day, routed, quick snake crawl back to the trench you left yesterday only without some of your friends who lie tangled in coils of barbed wire with their intestines and brains glistening in the sun.
The Battle of the Somme lasted almost five months and incurred almost a million casualties. At the end British forces advanced seven miles. On the first day, July 1, 1916, British forces alone incurred 57,000 casualties, making it the bloodiest day still in a long British military history.
Governments wage war, governments of varying degrees of competence which profess to manage complex societies. At their best, they protect the rights of their people to live peacefully in freedom. But. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote so perfectly, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[i]
“Once you hear the details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from a defeat.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Every election since Kennedy v Nixon in my memory has been booked as the most important of our lifetime with loud predictions and with the lines growing more distinct every cycle. The most recent was as divisive and angry and fear filled on both sides of the divide as any I can remember. Yet, every two or four years, the balance shifts a little, and the culture rift grows wider. A few legislative bills are passed with much fanfare at the outset of each administration before things settle back into the accustomed sniping impasse. The culture has morphed into something unrecognizable, but each election comes and goes with the same lackluster candidates somehow even less appealing and more dispiriting than the last batch. They fill the news cycles with apocalypse. But apocalypse somehow holds off.
A case could be made that our postmodern culture struggles find their best analog in WWI – epitomized in the Battle of the Somme. Eventually victors may emerge from the trenches, but many bloody years are laid to waste, and the dead are legion. The dividing lines are so deep that peaceful reconciliation seems remote. Like sitting on the southern slope of the Grand Canyon and looking out, contemplating the depth and breadth. Impassable crevasse.
Mistrust and enmity on all sides. The issues divide us, and their proposed solutions remain obstinately irreconcilable. Ideology becomes culture becomes intragenerational habit becomes character.
Immigration reform means secure borders to protect a country, or it means welcome and refuge for all who want to come with little room for compromise. Immigration good and evil on both sides. Xenophobia and fear vs welcome and refuge to the poor and desperate. A nation defined by its borders and ability to protect them from human trafficking drugs and weapons. Or a nation defined by the Emma Lazarus poem quoted on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Citizens of good faith on both sides of the canyon.
Gender ideology is so bewildering and becomes more vitriolic and farther from any possibility of compromise almost by the week. XX and XY immutable, or bodies completely to be defined by self and the politics of identity? However, dear God, did we come to this?
Abortion is of course at its existential core a fracture incapable of compromise or healing. There is either a dead baby or not; the freedom of women is intrinsically rooted in the legal right to take the life of their children, or it’s not. No compromise possible between an empty manger and an infant in swaddling clothes. Between a stainless-steel medical waste bucket left in a surgical suite and a bassinet in a warm lighted room attended by love. Between courageous hope triumphant and a desperate fear succumbed to; between sacrificial love and power enforced with violence; between the ‘choice’ of ‘bodily autonomy’ and a baby in a sheltered womb: between death and life.
What is most difficult to comprehend for me is that most friendly folks that I meet on both sides of every impossible issue are agreeable enough in conversation, seemingly acting in good faith, entertaining even, easy, funny, amicable, kidding in line at the supermarket, pleasant companions along the way if we stay off the tracks and third rails. Most are acting in good faith according to the lights of their tribe. Up close, we get along. On social media, on editorial pages, as talking heads on television, we are vicious and condemning. Why is that?
Rene Girard wrote extensively about the deep human tendency to scapegoat that we all share and how we off gas our unmanageable internal pressures by defining somebody other than ourselves as the reason for our misery. And we do it by groups. History is full of examples, and it occurs between countries or countries find their scapegoats internally. Scapegoats are fools, knaves, stupid, or evil or some combination thereof. For post WWI Germans, the Jews were the source of their troubles. For Marxists, it’s the capitalist oppressor. For Black Lives Matter members, it’s white supremacists. For conservatives, it’s progressives. For progressives, anyone in a MAGA hat. Girard wrote, “Why is our own participation in scapegoating so difficult to perceive and the participation of others so easy? To us, our fears and prejudices never appear as such because they determine our vision of people we despise, we fear, and against whom we discriminate.”
Does not that have the ring of authenticity?
Or as someone far wiser than I (or Dr. Girard for that matter) said so very long ago, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3
“How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” Mother Teresa [ii]
[i] The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
[ii] From the website of California Family