Saturday, July 19, 2008

Reporting back in...

What Popessa said! I am still here, I think…I have just been on the road, on various missions, like grading AP European history tests, touring more of the western front in France and Belgium and bringing a new dog into the family. I am not sure what the net effect of all these sundry assignments is: generally unleashing the dogs of war, unleashing a war of dogs, maybe calling on the old standby, the famous running dogs of imperialism that in turn unleashed the dogs of war in l9l4? I haven’t quite decided, but the conclusion to be drawn from the last part of this long, strange trip is the same as always: you NEVER, EVER choose war.
My battlefield tourist comrade and I began as always in Ypres, or “Wipers” as the British called it, where there was fierce fighting every year in the war, beginning in late fall l9l4, when the Germans were stopped on the river Marne on the way to Paris and began racing for the coast to try to outflank British forces and seal off the channel ports of Calais, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge. If they accomplished that, it would be impossible to supply the British Expeditionary Force, thereby making the march on Paris much easier. The Germans didn’t manage to get there quickly enough, and the British dug in, guaranteeing an indefinite siege of bloody trench warfare. Without reciting the entire history of the Ypres salient, I can tell you that there are l40+ British, 3 German, and several French and Belgian cemeteries in about a 30 square mile area. These represent only those soldiers whose bodies were found and identified. On a series of elaborate monuments to the missing, you can read the names of the thousands with no known graves—over 2/3 of the dead in this war fall into this category. At the Menin Gate, which straddles the road which every British soldier traveled to the front, the Belgians stage a solemn ceremony each evening in mourning and thanksgiving for those who died defending Belgium in the war. A buglers’ brigade plays the British equivalent of “Taps,” and a visitor recites the last four lines of a Lawrence Binyon poem called “For the Fallen.”

They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old
Age shall not worry them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Then it was on to northern France, in the Picardy region, where the battles of the Somme took place in l9l6 and l9l8. The big story there was July 1, l9l6, when the British army sustained some 58,000 casualties—the German casualty figures were catastrophic, too—in one day, the worst in British military history. There every corner of the planet, every vestige of the British empire is represented in commemoration—Newfoundlanders, Canadians, Aussies, South Africans, New Zealanders, Irish, Indians, Chinese trench diggers. As in Ypres, so many of them have no known graves, a fact driven home by the Lutyens memorial to the missing at Thiepval, which you see within this post. Although many of them were fighting for their lives to the southeast, at Verdun, there are numerous Frenchmen buried on the Somme as well. There is no finer tribute to the futility of that entire enterprise than the innumerable cemeteries and memorials amidst the fields and valleys of the Somme.
We ended our pilgrimage back in Belgium, “poor little Belgium,” where the Great War began the afternoon of August 21, l914, and ended with the Armistice at ll a.m. on 11/11/18. The first and last men to die on the British side are buried in St. Symphorien cemetery, alongside numerous Germans who died with them. No one could know that these men would bookend 9,000,000 other deaths in that conflict.
There is no end to sobering lessons on offer in the mass graveyard of the western front, but clearly the most important is that you CANNOT CHOOSE WAR, because the only thing you control in a war is the first shot. The current occupant of the White House chose war, with disastrous consequences for the world. We cannot afford a President McCain, who believes a)we could’ve “won” the Vietnam war, b)discretionary war in Iraq is a swell project and c)he should be elected President because he can “win wars.” The memory of the beginning and course of the Great War compels us to choose our leader in 2008 with a lot more care than in 2004.


Blogger Mr.Natural said...

Perspective is a wonderful thing. I wish there was some way to teach American children perspective and critical thinking instead of test passing.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Carol Gee said...

B -- I read your post from beginning to end, including all of the statistical figures, locations, battle names, etc.
The First World War was stunning in its loss of life, and failure to recover the soldiers' bodies. It was a massacre of huge proportions on both sides, fought to end all wars.
Should we feel better because the loss of life in Iraq is much less than that first "Great War?" I think not, because each son and daughter was precious to those who knew and loved them. Bush can spout platitudes about comforting the families, he can visit Walter Reed, and he can talk about why we need to stay at war, but he cannot restore the ancient artifacts of Iraq, nor can he restore the thousands of lost Iraqi and American lives lost.
His war of choice was tragic mostly for what it has cost the nation in lost constitutional protections, lost reputation among the family of nations and lost illusions amongst the rest of us about how resilient the USA will always be. Ugh!

3:28 PM  

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