Print Story For none now live who remember
By aphrael (Sun Nov 11, 2018 at 04:33:11 AM EST) (all tags)

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.

The first act of the twentieth century, the act that created the modern world, ended one hundred years ago today. It was an act unprecedented in the history of the west. It was an act of destruction and horror which, though none now live who remember it, still haunts the west. Though it is fading into our past, as events do, the tendrils of its aftermath still wrap around us, squeezing us in ways we can barely see.

The war directly ended the existence of four of the world’s six great empires. It forced changes in one of the others, giving birth to Australia and New Zealand. The anticolonial revolutionaries of a generation later gave credit to it as the first time they believed European armies could be beaten, inspiring them to change their worlds. It gave birth to the fissure in the west that became the cold war; it lay the seeds for the most terrible European regime of the twentieth century. And it killed an incredible number of people in the most ghastly of ways.

Twenty million people died in the war. Phrased another way: some days saw more deaths, some days saw fewer, but averaged out across the length of the war, more than thirteen thousand people died each day. Each day for more than four years.

In modern times, Americans consider it a tragedy to have had three thousand people die in a single attack, and we considered the approximately four thousand Americans who died in the Iraq war to be intolerable (while not really noticing the approximately one hundred fifty thousand Iraqis who died in the same time).

Can you imagine thirteen thousand people a day, every day, for four years? In a world whose population was a quarter of today’s population?

Today is the day our forefathers set aside so that they could remember. They are gone, but today is the day for us to remember in their stead.

There they go marching all in step so gay!
Smooth-cheeked and golden, food for shells and guns.
Blithely they go as to a wedding day,
The mothers' sons.

The drab street stares to see them row on row
On the high tram-tops, singing like the lark.
Too careless-gay for courage, singing they go
Into the dark.

With tin whistles, mouth-organs, any noise,
They pipe the way to glory and the grave;
Foolish and young, the gay and golden boys
Love cannot save.

High heart! High courage! The poor girls they kissed
Run with them : they shall kiss no more, alas!
Out of the mist they stepped-into the mist
Singing they pass.

It couldn't happen, they said. Popular wisdom, distilled in a book published in 1909, claimed that the cost of war was so great that it could not happen; that economic interdependence caused by the commerce of the age, and the economic cost of actually fighting a war, meant that war between the great powers was unlikely to happen and, if it were to happen, would end quickly - - for who, knowing the cost, would choose to pay it?

The book was a smash success; it captured the public mood, and the public repaid its author in droves, as it always does when the public mood is captured. And who can blame the public for its mood? It had been a century since the last major great power war, more than three generations of relative peace, and why would anyone want to disrupt that? Sure, it had not been completely peaceful, there were still skirmishes on the edge of the world, and there'd been the wars of Italian reunification and the Prussian invasion of France, and the American Civil War -but these wars, as terrible as they'd been for the combatants, had been contained. They hadn't sprawled out into general war, as had been common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nothing had done that since Napoleon. What reason was there to believe anything would do it again?

There were warning signs; the highest level of government functionaries had been worried about Balkan crises since the turn of the century, the slow disintegration of the Ottoman Empire needed managing, and Germany was clearly discontented with its place in the world, but … these problems could and would be managed. There might be a skirmish here or there, something minor, a brief little conflict easily ended - - but nothing to disrupt the world order. The world order was cemented. It was the modern age, after all.

It's a common human failing, to believe the success of the present will always endure; a combination of pride and lack of imagination, made worse by the failure of memory. It's easy to forget what we can be when we are consumed with what we appear to be today.

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?

Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye,
Who watch us stepping by
With doubt and dolorous sigh?
Can much pondering so hoodwink you!
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye?

Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see—
Dalliers as they be—
England's need are we;
Her distress would leave us rueing:
Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see!

In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just.

Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away.

The late nineteenth century, the early twentieth century: these were times of tremendous innovation. The automobile, the airplane. Electricity. The telephone. The earliest glimmerings of radio. Engineers were transforming the world, and the world of war was no different. 

But the technological transformation of war was a terrible thing: it meant that men could be slaughtered like ants. The machine gun brought the power to kill quickly and easily. Artillery shells meant you could kill from a distance - - and those you could not kill, you could traumatize, with the sound of destruction shaking continuously in their ears and their brains for days at a time and, for many, continuing to shake them for the rest of their lives. 

The solution to the problems of machine guns and artillery were the trenches: long artificial canyons from which you could defend your position while hiding from the enemy's weapons. But the trenches were terrible; they were places to cower in a defensive crouch while death rained down from above. Filthy, pest-infested, breeding grounds for disease, they were also loud, uncomfortable, breeding grounds for terror. Those that died may in the end have been lucky - - for many of those who remained, the horror stayed with them the rest of their lives. How could it not?

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Even worse than the machine guns, even worse than the artillery, even worse than the rats and the mud and the terrible food and the barely drinkable water, even worse was the gas. One of the great technical innovations of the day, banned throughout the civilized world as a direct result of their use in the war, were a troika of poisonous gasses. 

First came chlorine gas, a greenish-yellow gas that blew in the wind, stinging the eyes, throat, and lungs of all who encountered it, killing many by asphyxiation Because it blew in the wind it was hard to control, and might injure allies as well as enemies; so everyone learned to wear gas masks, to protect against enemy and ally alike.

Then came phosgene, a colorless odorless gas that would fill with fluid the lungs of those exposed to it. Victims would suffocate from the fluid - - a slow, agonizing, inevitable death. Again; gas masks became a requirement for survival - but gas masks were miserably unpleasant to wear; they were heavy, they were hot, they impaired range of vision, and the air breathed through them never smelled or tasted quite right. 

And against the last of the troika, they were largely useless. Mustard gas would blister your skin, whether you were wearing a gas mask or not; it would stick to your clothes and to the ground, and exposure to contaminated clothes or surfaces could poison you for days after the cloud had dissipated. And if you weren't wearing a mask? Something that can blister your skin can blister your lungs, and it can make you go blind.  So you're stuck in a trench, and this cloud settles in from above, and there's nowhere to go; you will experience incredible pain for days, and you will die, as will everyone around you.

Sixteen years old when I went to the war,
To fight for a land fit for heroes,
God on my side, and a gun in my hand,
Chasing my days down to zero,
And I marched and I fought and I bled and I died,
And I never did get any older,
But I knew at the time that a year in the line,
Was a long enough life for a soldier,

We all volunteered, and we wrote down our names,
And we added two years to our ages,
Eager for life and ahead of the game,
Ready for history's pages,
And we brawled and we fought and we whored 'til we stood,
Ten thousand shoulder to shoulder,
A thirst for the Hun, we were food for the gun,
And that's what you are when you're soldiers,

I heard my friend cry, and he sank to his knees,
Coughing blood as he screamed for his mother,
And I fell by his side, and that's how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other,
And I lay in the mud and the guts and the blood,
And I wept as his body grew colder,
And I called for my mother and she never came,
Though it wasn't my fault and I wasn't to blame,
The day not half over and ten thousand slain,
And now there's nobody remembers our names
And that's how it is for a soldier

And heaven help you if you left the trenches. The worst battles of the western front came when one army or the other tried to move --to come out of the trenches and push forward, claiming territory from the enemy. The guns and the gas meant this would be a disaster. To use just one example, at the Battle of the Somme, over a hundred and forty days, there were more than a million dead and wounded (Britian alone saw twenty thousand men die on the first day of the battle). And the Somme wasn't unusual - - it had a higher casualty count than any other battle, but every time either side tried to move the trenches, the result was an unimaginable slaughter.

It's been estimated that a third of the fighting age men of England died in the war. Imagine this: one third of the boys you went to high school with, killed in a brief stretch in their late teens, and odds are pretty high you watched them die, because you were fighting too. 

In France, it was even worse --proportionally twice as many French died as English, and there it wasn't just soldiers, either; it was villagers and townies, too, because the fighting was taking place on French soil.

The generation that fought the war in the west never really recovered, and how could they?

Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been.

And this we know: Death is not Life, effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvellous things know well the end not yet.

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?”
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.

It was different in the East. The horrors of the trenches never really happened there. At first, the Russians had some success, but by 1915, the German armies advanced inexorably across the Polish and Russian forests, fought off by conscript armies of starving, half-frozen, shoeless men. But those mean fought: desperately, as if their lives depended on it, which they did: by two and a half years into the war, Russia had sustained more than six million casualties, and as a result the last absolute monarchy in Europe was overthrown - - and then, when the revolutionary government insanely decided to continue the war rather than break the treaties the Emperor had signed, the revolutionary government was itself overthrown. The war had to end. There was no other choice.

There’s a lonely stretch of hillocks:
There’s a beach asleep and drear:
There’s a battered broken fort beside the sea.
There are sunken trampled graves:
And a little rotting pier:
And winding paths that wind unceasingly.
There’s a torn and silent valley:
There’s a tiny rivulet
With some blood upon the stones beside its mouth.
There are lines of buried bones:
There’s an unpaid waiting debt :
There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.

In the South, the British, led in this fight by a man who would later become one of the country's greatest heroes, tried something insane: landing on a thin strip of land between the sea and fortified hills, and trying to scale the hills in the face of artillery barrages from above. They failed, losing fifty thousand men in the assault with nothing to show for it. The victorious Turkish commander, who also lost fifty thousand men but at least staved off the invasion of his country, became a national hero and later became it's most powerful political leader and literally changed the course of his country's history; the survivors of the assault, who included large numbers of men from two British colonies, went home carrying with them a new tribal bond with their fellows and a resentment of their colonial masters, which blossomed into a new found national identity for the people of those lands. All three countries view this crazy battle as a moment of massive significance in their national histories.

"Have you news of my boy Jack?"
Not this tide.
"When d'you think that he'll come back?"
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
"Has any one else had word of him?"
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
"Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?"
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind -
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!>

The war was not confined to Europe. It's not just that England depended on troops from India, and from Australia and New Zealand and Canada; it's that the great powers fought outside of Europe, too. The Ottomans were the enemy, and control of Suez and the passageway from Europe to India was endangered, so the war had to be taken to the Arab world (and the crazy borders of the middle east, which respect neither cultural nor tribal borders, are the result of European invasion during the war). It had also to be taken to Africa, where Germany must be divested of her colonies, and the Arab enemies of the French and English were a constant threat. The South Africans invaded Namibia, the Germans invaded Angola, the British invaded Cameroon, the French and British invaded Togoland, Arabs revolted across North Africa, the British invaded Tanganyika, the Belgians invaded Ruanda-Urundi. Everywhere there was carnage and slaughter, and in many places, indigenous revolutionaries took advantage of the chaos to launch revolts, causing more carnage and slaughter.
Order was restored, the Germans were dispossessed of their colonies, and eventually an uneasy peace was restored - - but the revolutionaries of the 1950s pointed to this time as the time that they learned that Europeans could be beaten, and that changed everything; it lay the foundation for the death of Empires and the birth of the modern third world. It was not sufficient, and this change would come only with more than a generation of struggle, but it was necessary - the first shot fired, without which the others would not have come.

In Flanders Field the cannon boom
And fitful flashes light the gloom;
While up above, like Eagles, fly
The fierce destroyers of the sky;
With stains the earth wherein you lie
Is redder than the poppy bloom
In Flanders Field.

Sleep on ye brave! The shrieking shell,
The quaking trench, the startling yell,
The fury of the battle hell
Shall wake you not; for all is well.

Sleep peacefully, for all is well.
Your flaming torch aloft we bear,
With burning heart an oath we swear
To keep the faith to fight it through
To crush the foe, or sleep with you
In Flanders Field

The Americans came late to the war. The President had promised to stay out, but events ran away with him, and he was unable to keep that promise; so hordes of young American men sailed across the sea, the first time America had intervened off of her continent. Told they were going to make the world safe for democracy, they went off to an experience they could not imagine; both the strangeness of Europe and the horror of war were new to them.
<be>Back home, puritanical activists took advantage of their absence to ban the sale of alcohol. The government nationalized industries for the first time in the country's history, and shredded the first amendment into pieces by restricting both speech and assembly in the name of national security. Nothing like it had ever been seen before; a terrified country gave up freedom for safety, prompted by the barrel of the Presidential gun.

He drowsed and was aware of silence heaped
Round him, unshaken as the steadfast walls;
Aqueous like floating rays of amber light,
Soaring and quivering in the wings of sleep.
Silence and safety; and his mortal shore
Lipped by the inward, moonless waves of death.

Someone was holding water to his mouth.
He swallowed, unresisting; moaned and dropped
Through crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot
The opiate throb and ache that was his wound.
Water—calm, sliding green above the weir;
Water—a sky-lit alley for his boat,
Bird-voiced, and bordered with reflected flowers
And shaken hues of summer: drifting down,
He dipped contented oars, and sighed, and slept.

Night, with a gust of wind, was in the ward,
Blowing the curtain to a gummering curve.
Night. He was blind; he could not see the stars
Glinting among the wraiths of wandering cloud;
Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green,
Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes.

Rain—he could hear it rustling through the dark;
Fragrance and passionless music woven as one;
Warm rain on drooping roses; pattering showers
That soak the woods; not the harsh rain that sweeps
Behind the thunder, but a trickling peace,
Gently and slowly washing life away.

He stirred, shifting his body; then the pain
Leaped like a prowling beast, and gripped and tore
His groping dreams with grinding claws and fangs.
But someone was beside him; soon he lay
Shuddering because that evil thing had passed.
And death, who'd stepped toward him, paused and stared.

Light many lamps and gather round his bed.
Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.
Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.
He's young; he hated war; how should he die
When cruel old campaigners win safe through?

But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went,
And there was silence in the summer night;
Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep.
Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.

And still the fighting raged. Thirteen thousand people a day. Every day. Sundays and holidays included, despite a heartwarming story about a soccer game and Christmas. The hopes and dreams of a generation shattered and destroyed in the grisly meat grinder of industrialized war, where people served to feed the machines, and nothing more. No hope for a better tomorrow, no love, no comfort, just pain and misery and death, for those in the trenches, and those on the hills, and those doing battle in the forests of the east.

And then, blessedly, it stopped. On the eleventh day of November, 1918. One hundred years ago today. It stopped. The guns fell silent, the armies laid themselves down and rested, and the great nightmare of the Great War came to an end.

And across the west a shout went up: let us make sure. let us make sure this never happens again.

Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again
And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands end bowed their heeds
And grateful prayers were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground
Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

In the aftermath, the Austrian empire collapsed, the German empire was replaced with a weak and disoriented republic, and the Ottoman empire collapsed. The Russian empire had already collapsed, replaced with a revolutionary socialist regime which aimed to take over the world.

The map of eastern Europe was redrawn, as were the maps of the middle east and Africa. America went home, the German economy collapsed, and the British and French empires, exhausted and bedraggled, circled the wagons and licked their wounds.

But the terror of the war, and the desire to avoid it in the future, persisted. The great powers of the world actually went so far as to sign a treaty agreeing to never again use war as a means of settling disputes.

It didn't last. Perhaps it couldn't have lasted. Less than a generation later, the war was engulfed in another war, more terrible in number of casualties, driven in part by a wholly new horror: the deliberate and methodical extermination of a particular cultural minority. But that war is best understood as an *effect* of the great war - for it was resentment at the punishment for the great war, and the lies told about it, which the authors of the second war used to rally support, and it was the fear of another conflagration which caused the opponents of the new war's authors to hesitate and wait until it was too late to contain the problem.

The world had changed, and not all of the changes were good. And the scars wove themselves deep into the psyche of the west, where they remain to this day.

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

A hundred years have passed. When I started writing these, twenty or so years ago, a few remained who could remember it; now they are all gone. And this is as it should be - the horrors of the past fade into the past and are forgotten, as the nightmares that kept our grandparents awake are not our nightmares.

And yet: if, as a people, we forget, then odds are high we will do it again. We are human, and the passions of the moment will lead us down this kind of path, as they have before, unless something warns us off of it - and memory of its travails is the best warding we know.

So I charge you, today, to remember. Remember the terror, and the pain, and the keening loss. Fill your soul with that memory, for only by remembering the dead can we honor them, and only by remembering the dead can we keep ourselves out of the machine that killed them.
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