There was something implacable about all this, above all; it seemed inanimate. . . . You could see nothing of the agony and passion that gave each little moving human dot its own individual character and made them all so many worlds. All you saw was the material development of a clash between two huge material forces. - Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, letter to his sister from the front, 1918
This generation has no future, and deserves none. Anyone who belongs to it lives no more. - German Lt. Rudolf Binding, A Fatalist At War
Having finally made my way through the essays in Stephen Jay Gould's Dinosaur In A Haystack, borrowed from my parents' house after my visit in late July, I have begun a long-delayed re-read of Gregor Dallas's 1918: War and Peace. With many thoughts still on our troops in Afghanistan as well as the thousands of veterans from there and Iraq and their myriad problems (especially the suicide rate among both active duty and veteran troops from the wars), I have been wondering to myself about the inner strength of our military personnel. Not in a detrimental way, certainly. Our troops have been fighting under conditions that are unique in our history: they continue to carry out their missions with an invisibility - except when their names pop up on casualty lists - that is remarkable. Had Johnson and Nixon managed to wage their wars in southeast Asia with the kind of opacity Bush and Obama have managed, the history of the last quarter of the 20th century would have been very different, to say the least. No, my concern was whether our troops, professional volunteers from a land of opulent abundance, comfort, and security, experienced the shock of warfare in ways that stripped them of the psychological defenses needed to remain sane in insane situations, then return to their normal lives without widespread psychic damage. The numbers certainly aren't encouraging, and while the military is certainly continuing to improve the assistance given our troops, I guess I'm a little worried that we are forgetting our own responsibilities to our returning veterans. How do we here back home not only make the invisible visible again, but hear them in a way that helps them return home?
It is with something like relief, in a sad way, that I turn to this first horrid total war of the past century to discover that British, French, German, Russian, and American troops were no different in kind from their American great-great-grandchildren. While our social and political and economic and cultural realities are far different, the suffering our troops endure after their tours are over and they return to the quiet and safety of civilian life, that front-line veterans recognize a near-infinite distance between themselves and any who has not experienced the horrors of their recent lives is a constant refrain.
The First World War occurred in the midst of many social revolutions, including a steadily rising standard of living, the expansion of literacy and education, and the beginnings of clinical psychology that all blended together to create a literature that was different from other post-war memoirs. Going all the way back to Julius Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul, generals have sought to justify their actions to people by presenting their case for the conduct of military operations. The 20th century saw a flowering of these kinds of writings, to be sure. It also saw the emergence of literature from the front-line soldier.
Not just memoirs, but novels and, in the case of the First World War, poetry. The great, tragic Wilfred Owen. The high moral dudgeon in the midst of contradiction that was the poetry of Sigfried Sassoon. These poems shaped the way many came to understand the lives of troops in the trenches, the horrors of that war of mud and gas and mass death. There were the novels of Ernest Hemingway, such as The Sun Also Rises. The most famous novel about the First World War was Erich Maria Remarque's All's Quiet On The Western Front, presenting to the world the realization that, regardless of the uniform or cause, at least in that horrible war the experiences of soldiers differed little.
A constant refrain from our returning troops, suddenly visible to the public after a twelve month or eighteen month absence, is the inability of any save those in the midst of the surrealism of front-line combat to have any grasp or understanding of their time. Friends and loved one seek out this information, I think, not only to reconnect with their loved one, but to remind them that the reality of life in war, life at war, is not the only reality; that there is, indeed peace and love to be had with family and friends, but only through understanding. While civilians have, I believe in no small part thanks to the literature that has flowed from veterans of previous wars, a grasp at the very least of the reality of the distance between troops at the front and their own lives, we are still waiting for those first real confessions and poems and novels from troops from our decade of war. In the meantime, far too many of our American soldiers and sailors, our Marines and airmen and pilots suffer not just from post-traumatic stress, but the seeming inability to bridge the gap back to their non-combat lives; perhaps they should learn the lessons their not-so-distant ancestors learned, and take what they experienced and write it down.
Will we understand? Of course not; not in the way those who have lived and been wounded or died there understood it. We will, however, understand our lack of understanding, and hear in the voices of our combat veterans the reality of the unreality that is war in its most immediate experience. In that sharing, the mutual need to understand and be understood, to love and receive love, to come together by communicating the reality of the distances between us, we might yet have some peace, love and understanding.