The balance and the point of it

“Every good quality has its bad side, and nothing good can come into the world without at once producing a corresponding evil. This painful fact renders illusory the feeling of elation that so often goes with consciousness of the present—the feeling that we are the culmination of the whole history of mankind, the fulfilment and end-product of countless generations. At best it should be a proud admission of our poverty: we are also the disappointment of the hopes and expectations of the ages. Think of nearly two thousand years of Christian Idealism followed, not by the return of the Messiah and the heavenly millennium, but by the World War among Christian nations with its barbed wire and poison gas. What a catastrophe in heaven and on earth!” – Carl Gustav Jung, “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man” (trans. R.F.C. Hull)

The Project

Twenty-seven months ago, around the time of the centenary of the the start of the First World War, I began a reading project, setting myself to read about the twentieth century’s wars, the political and economic and ideological struggles, and the people caught up in them. I knew a fair amount about the subject already, picked up in bits and pieces over the years, but I wanted to get a bigger picture – learn the contexts, draw connections, see the flow, see how one thing made the way for another thing, see if I could gain a better understanding of the world I live in – we live in – and how it got from where it was to where it is.

Today I finished: eighty-three books, innumerable articles, and various films later. I learned various things, made various connections, saw the flows, the causes and effects (in so far as those are discernable). The two major lessons I learned were, 1) The First World War (also known as the Great War) was a catastrophe for Eurpean civilization, a cataclysm from which the pre-war European world had no hope of recovery, and from which the aftershocks are still felt. If you seek to understand the world, you could do well by understanding how it was before the Great War, how quckly and how much was destroyed during that war, and all that arose from the wreckage of that collapse. And 2) if people are given the choice between believing a comforting lie and believing a discomforting truth, they will pick the lie, every time. They will hold onto their belief in that lie until they are crushed – their men slaughtered, their women raped, their children enslaved, their cities burned and razed.

Convinced to die

“Words like ‘watershed’ or ‘turning point’ are easy to deploy but hard to justify—except in the case of World War I. Like few other episodes—the fall of Rome, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution—it really did leave a different world in its wake. The technology of mass destruction was perhaps the most obvious respect. Barbed wire, trench warfare, the machine gun, the tank, poison gas, artillery barrages, and aerial bombardment all meant that war would no longer evoke enthusiastic reactions like that of one characteristically brainless young aristocrat in the first weeks of the war: ‘It is all the best fun. I have never felt so well, or so happy, or enjoyed anything so much.’ Such upper-class twits were killed off even more rapidly than the plowboys and factory workers who followed them into the maw of the new industrial killing machines. War would no longer be noble sport; it was professionalized. And so, more subtly but no less fatefully, was government. The technology of mass persuasion (otherwise known as propaganda or indoctrination) was first introduced not by the totalitarian regimes of the interwar period but by the democracies during World War I. As John Buchan, the British Empire’s tireless propagandist-in-chief, put it: ‘So far as Britain is concerned, the war could not have been fought for one month without its newspapers.’ The same was true of Germany and France. The first total war imposed unprecedented burdens on the population and therefore required unprecedented lying and coercion on the part of governments to preempt or suppress dissent. They rose to this challenge brilliantly, cajoling newspaper owners, cultivating friendly journalists, subsidizing ‘patriotic’ writers, speakers, and film-makers, prohibiting or sabotaging antiwar meetings and publications, and harassing or, when necessary, imprisoning critics. Government was no longer largely a hobby for the more earnest, non-fox-hunting members of the aristocracy. It became public administration, one of the social sciences.” – George Scialabba, “To End All Wars” (emphasis in original)

Madame est servie

“One evening [Stillwell] dined at the mess of Colonel Cantau, a bald, fat officer of sixty who wore enlisted man’s cap, rows of decorations, hazed the servants, ate well and ‘doesn’t give a damn.’ It being a meatless Friday, the meal consisted of two kinds of omelet, fish and rice, vegetable salad, white and red wine, champagne, two cordials and cheese. The orderly was made to salute and announce, ‘Madame est servie.’ When Stillwell asked why Madame, the Colonel asked in turn, ‘Are you married?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Where is your wife?’ ‘In the United States.’ ‘No, she is in your heart; therefore she is here. That is why I have him announce, “Madame est servie.” ’ ” – Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell and the American Experience in China

Not quite chess with Death, but in the spirit

“One of the German companies, led by its Austrian guide, moved forward under cover of darkness and eventually reached a large shed. Here it was halted and the men slept until morning. When dawn broke the company commander found that this shed was located about 200 meters from an Austrian battery and therefore was very likely to suffer from Russian artillery fire. He had just sized up this situation when he looked up and saw a Russian observation balloon hovering to his front. In spite of the all-too-apparent danger, he felt that the situation as a whole demanded that the presence of the Germans remain a secret. He therefore decided to keep his men hidden in the shed until the balloon went down. Almost immediately the Russians began to shell the Austrian battery. One out of every three or four rounds fell short, striking near the shed. The company commander noticed that his men were becoming increasingly nervous. Some of them on excuses of one sort or another, tried to obtain permission to leave the shed. When the captain did not allow this, the men lapsed into a sullen silence; not a word was spoken. Minute by minute the tension grew. The company commander saw that action of some sort was necessary. Therefore, he called the company barber, sat down with his back to the Russian fire, and directed the barber to cut his hair. He had the most unpleasant haircut of his life, but the effect on the men, however, was splendid. They felt that if their company commander could sit down quietly and let his hair be cut the situation could not be as bad as they had imagined. Conversation started up; soon a few jokes were  cracked and before long some of the men began to play cards.” – George C. Marshall, Infantry in Battle

. . . and then he decides to look

“A soldier pinned to the ground by hostile fire, with no form of activity to divert his thought from the whistling death about him, soon develops an overwhelming sense of inferiority. He feels alone and deserted. He feels unable to protect himself. With nothing to do but wait and with nothing to think about but the immediate danger that surrounds him, his nerves rapidly reach the breaking point.” – George C. Marshall, Infantry in Battle

The age of innocence

“In April 1917 the United States, with an army of 133,000 men, entered the war in which the belligerents had more that six million men engaged on the Western Front alone. The European national forces were organized into armies each containing three to five corps, each corps usually consisting of two divisions. The American army had no organized military unit higher than a regiment. Although the divisional structure existed on paper, no American soldiers since the Civil War had taken the field as a division, with all the coordination of infantry and artillery, of staff and field, of intelligence and operations, that that requires. All this had to be learned and put into practice. A national army fleshed out to ten times the size of its existing regimental skeleton had to be created, which meant recruited, officered, trained, equipped, shipped overseas, assembled, supplied, coordinated in its arms and branches, and further trained before it could fight. For this task the General Staff had made no arrangements or any general plan of mobilization.” – Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell and the American Experience in China

All these men had names

“And so, at the appointed hour, this brigade of 6,000 highhearted and determined men stood up and at the word of command fixed their bayonets, shouldered their rifles, and marched forward in quick time and in step to assault an intrenched enemy armed with machine guns. One can only surmise the thought in the minds of those German gunners as they saw the dense and serried waves of skirmishers marching stolidly toward them. As the leading wave approached the German position the French artillery lifted and the enemy’s artillery, machine guns and rifles opened with a concerted roar. The leading wave went down, the others surging forward were literally blown apart. In a matter of minutes the attack had melted away. A few men reached the wire in front of the German position, but there they were forced to take cover in shell holes. The entire brigade, nailed to the ground by a merciless fire, could do nothing but wait for nightfall.” – George C. Marshall, Infantry in Battle

Pin a tail on that donkey

“As some historians have contended, [British Prime Minister] Chamberlain in the end saw himself as a practical businessman willing to deal with the world as it was, engage in hardheaded negotiation with others, and strike a mutually beneficial bargain on the assumption that all parties would honor their parts of the deal. Like the vast majority of his countrymen, he had vivid and terrible memories of the [First] World War and felt revulsion at the thought of a new generation dying on the killing fields of Western Europe. In both instances, he was a liberal—a man of humane sentiments and reasoned intellect. The Realpolitik he tried to practice was itself largely a creation of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in reaction to previous catastrophic wars of religion; it thought of states and their leaders as rational actors seeking to maximize advantage but pursuing limited aims. Chamberlain expressed the most important weakness of his superficially tough-minded realism when he declared his determination to deal with the grievances of adversaries through the application of ‘our common sense, our common humanity” in seeking the solution to outstanding problems. Realpolitik in the age of Hitler and Stalin required an understanding of the darker angels of human nature. Businessman in background, Unitarian in religious training, liberal politician in vocation, Chamberlain had scant conception of the phenomenon of evil.” – Alonzo L. Hamby, For the Survival of Democracy

Hail, Britannia

“An Englishman’s duty is to secure for himself for ever, reasonable clothing, a clean shirt a day, a couple of mutton chops grilled without condiments, two floury potatoes, an apple pie with a piece of Stilton and pulled bread, a pint of Club médoc, a clean room, in the winter a good fire in the grate, a comfortable armchair, a comfortable woman to see that all these were prepared for you, and to keep you warm in bed and to brush your bowler and fold your umbrella in the morning. When you had that secure for life you could do what you liked provided that what you did never endangered that security.” – Ford Madox Ford, The Last Post

Open to offers or up for grabs

“English people of good class do not dress for dinner on Sundays. That is a politeness to God because theoretically you attend evening service and you do not go to church in the country in evening dress. As a matter of fact you never go to evening service—but it is complimentary to suggest by your dress that you might be visited by the impulse.” – Ford Madox Ford, The Last Post

But where’s the profit in it?

“This was the war of attrition. . . . A mug’s game! A mug’s game as far as killing men was concerned, but not an uninteresting occupation if you considered it as a struggle of various minds spread all over the broad landscape in the sunlight. They did not kill many men and they expended an infinite number of missiles and a vast amount of thought. If you took six million men armed with loaded canes and stockings containing bricks or knives and set them against another six million men similarly armed, at the end of three hours four million on the one side and the entire six million on the other would be dead. So, as far as killing went, it really was a mug’s game. That was what happened if you let yourself get into the hands of the applied scientist. For all these things were the products not of the soldier but of hirsute, bespectacled creatures who peered through magnifying glasses. Or of course, on our side, they would be shaven-cheeked and less abstracted. They were efficient as slaughterers in that they enabled the millions of men to be moved. When you had only knives you could not move very fast. On the other hand, your knife killed at every stroke: you could set a million men firing at each other with rifles from eighteen hundred yards. But few rifles ever registered a hit. So the invention was relatively inefficient. And it dragged things out! And suddenly it had become boring.” – Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (ellipsis in original)

Nowadays we call them “trust-fund brats”

“Gentlemen don’t earn money. Gentlemen, as a matter of fact, don’t do anything. They exist. Perfuming the air like Madonna lilies. Money comes into them as air through petals and foliage. Thus the world is made better and brighter. And, of course, thus political life can be kept clean!” – Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up—

Stiff upper lip, wot?

“To a sensitive officer—and all good officers in this respect are sensitive—the psychology of the men makes itself felt in innumerable ways. He can afford to be blind to the feelings of his officers, for officers have to stand so much at the hands of their seniors before the rules of the service give them a chance to retaliate, that it takes a really bad Colonel to put his own mess in a bad way. As officer you have to jump to your C.O.’s orders, to applaud his sentiments, to smile at his lighter witticisms and to guffaw at those that are more gross. That is the Service. With the Other Ranks it is different. A discreet warrant-officer will discreetly applaud his officer’s eccentricities and good humours, as will a sergeant desirous of promotion; but the rank and file are under no such compulsion. As long as a man comes to attention when spoken to that is all that can be expected of him. He is under no obligation to understand his officer’s witticisms so he can still less be expected to laugh at or to repeat them with gusto. He need not even come very smartly to attention.” – Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (emphasis in original)

And when you got there, how could you hide?

“The regular and as if mechanical falling of comrades spreads disproportionate dismay in advancing or halted troops. It is no doubt terrible to you to have large numbers of your comrades instantaneously annihilated by the explosion of some huge engine, but huge engines are blind and thus accidental; a slow, regular picking off of the men beside you is evidence that human terribleness that is not blind or accidental is cold-bloodedly and unshakably turning its attention to a spot very near you. It may very shortly turn its attention to yourself. Of course, it is disagreeable when artillery is bracketing across your line: a shell falls a hundred yards in front of you, another a hundred yards behind you; the next will be half-way between, and you are halfway between. The waiting wrings your soul; but it does not induce panic or the desire to run—at any rate to nearly the same extent. Where, in any event, could you run to?” – Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up—

Or being Europeans

“The whole of military history, in so far as it concerned allied operations of any sort—from the campaigns of Xerxes and operations during the wars of the Greeks and Romans, to the campaigns of Marlborough and Napoleon and the Prussian operations of 1866 and 1870—pointed to the conclusion that a relatively small force acting homogeneously was, to the nth power again, more effective than vastly superior forces of allies acting only imperfectly in accord or not in accord at all.” – Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades

And they mansplain

“She was by that time tired of men, or she imagined that she was; for she was not prepared to be certain, considering the muckers she saw women coming all round her over the most unpresentable individuals. Men, at any rate, never fulfilled expectations. They might, upon acquaintance, turn out more entertaining than they appeared; but almost always taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it. You had not been for ten minutes in any sort of intimacy with any man before you said: ‘But I’ve read all this before. . . .’ You knew the opening, you were already bored by the middle, and, especially, you knew the end. . . .” – Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (ellipses in original)

“Disabled,” Wilfred Owen

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow.  Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
—In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race,
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a bloodsmear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join.  He wonders why . . .
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.

That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join.  He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; and no fears
Of Fear came yet.  He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is!  Why don’t they come
And put him into bed?  Why don’t they come?

– Wilfred Owen, “Disabled”

“Wild with all Regrets,” Wilfred Owen

To Siegfried Sassoon

My arms have mutinied against me—brutes!
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats,
My back’s been stiff for hours, damned hours.
Death never gives his squad a Stand-at-ease.
I can’t read.  There:  it’s no use.  Take your book.
A short life and a merry one, my buck!
We said we’d hate to grow dead old.  But now,
Not to live old seems awful:  not to renew
My boyhood with my boys, and teach ’em hitting,
Shooting and hunting,—all the arts of hurting!
—Well, that’s what I learnt.  That, and making money.
Your fifty years in store seem none too many;
But I’ve five minutes.  God!  For just two years
To help myself to this good air of yours!
One Spring!  Is one too hard to spare?  Too long?
Spring air would find its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.

Yes, there’s the orderly.  He’ll change the sheets
When I’m lugged out, oh, couldn’t I do that?
Here in this coffin of a bed, I’ve thought
I’d like to kneel and sweep his floors for ever,—
And ask no nights off when the bustle’s over,
For I’d enjoy the dirt; who’s prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust,—
Less live than specks that in the sun-shafts turn?
Dear dust,—in rooms, on roads, on faces’ tan!
I’d love to be a sweep’s boy, black as Town;
Yes, or a muckman.  Must I be his load?
A flea would do.  If one chap wasn’t bloody,
Or went stone-cold, I’d find another body.

Which I shan’t manage now.  Unless it’s yours.
I shall stay in you, friend, for some few hours.
You’ll feel my heavy spirit chill your chest,
And climb your throat on sobs, until it’s chased
On sighs, and wiped from off your lips by wind.

I think on your rich breathing, brother, I’ll be weaned
To do without what blood remained me from my wound.

– Wilfred Owen, “Wild with all Regrets”

“Exposure,” by Wilfred Owen

I

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire.
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
But nothing happens.

II

Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches.  So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home:  glimpsing the sunk fires glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice:  the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors all closed:  on us the doors are closed—
We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.

To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces.  All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

– Wilfred Owen, “Exposure”

“Dulce et Decorum est,” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.  Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod.  All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas!  GAS!  Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:  Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum est”

“Parable of the Old Men and the Young,” Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchéd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him.  Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son. . . .

– Wilfred Owen, “Parable of the Old Men and the Young”

“Mental Cases,” Wilfred Owen

Who are these?  Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,—but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand palms
Misery swelters.  Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

—These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
—Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
—Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

– Wilfred Owen, “Mental Cases”

We are all amateurs here

“If every day and all day long you chatter at high pitch and with the logic an lucidity of the Frenchman; if you shout in self-assertion, with your hat on your stomach, bowing from a stiff spine and by implication threaten all day long to shoot your interlocutor, like the Prussian; if you are as lachrymally emotional as the Italian, or as drily and epigrammatically imbecile over unessentials as the American, you will have a noisy, troublesome, and thoughtless society without any of the surface calm that should distinguish the atmosphere of men when they are together. You will never have deep arm-chairs in which to sit for hours in clubs thinking of nothing at all—or of the off-theory in bowling. On the other hand, in the face of death — except at sea, by fire, railway accident or accidental drowning in rivers; in the face of madness, passion, dishonour or—and particularly—prolonged mental strain, you will have all the disadvantage of the beginner at any game and may come off very badly indeed. Fortunately death, love, public dishonour and the like are rare occurrences in the life of the average man, so that the great advantage would seem to have lain with English society; at any rate before the later months of the year 1914.” – Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not…