One hundred years ago, my grandfather, my mother’s mother was killed at Verdun by a German bullet, or by a German shell, or even from friendly fire. No one ever knew because his body was not found. The bodies of tens of thousands were not found, French and German.
By the time the smoke of that particular battle cleared, after about six months, 500,000 men had died, both Germans and French. Nothing tangible was accomplished on the ground by either side, no advantage gained. There is much pious belief on the French side that the battle, initiated by Germany, helped bleed the German Army toward its eventual surrender. In point of fact, two years later, Germany sued for peace while its armies where still in France and in Belgium. It never suffered a decisive defeat. It’s easy to believe that the naval blockade of Germany, causing hunger among civilians within the country had more to do with its defeat than the hundreds of thousands of French casualties at Verdun.
At the conclusion of the war, not much of vital importance had changed at first near the main front line. Alsace and northern Lorraine, two culturally Germanic formerly French provinces had been returned to France from which they had been taken by Germany in 1870. In 1918, on their return, the two areas were prosperous and in great shape. If they had suffered as part of the German Empire, it was not obvious how.
What was different at the conclusion of the war was that Germany had been turned into a political and economic disaster zone from which World War Two and Nazism would eventually arise. The autocratic Russian Empire had been overthrown, soon to the benefit of a much worse, more destructive autocracy. The multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire, not a bad place to live according to many literary testimonies, disappeared and it was replaced by a number of jealous, quarreling smaller states.
The social and the cultural consequences of the war are more difficult to trace. Surprisingly little has been done about this topic in English or in French, aside from laments, many poignant and of significant literary value. I mean the long aftermath of the war. The war itself produced several literary masterpieces, including Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Incidentally, this great German writer deliberately Frenchified his last name, from the original “Remark.” This is important somehow, strengthening the notion that European wars after the 19th century were really civil wars. But I digress.
I had to become a grandfather myself to think about societies with a shortage of grandfathers. I write in my memoirs about the scarcity of grandfathers in France in the years following the hollow victory of World War One.
“I was born 24 years after my maternal grandfather’s death and physical disappearance at the theatrical mass killing of the battle of Verdun. That was like an eternity to a child but like an instant for older adults, including my own widowed maternal grandmother and the tens of thousands of widows of her generation. The damage they had suffered was irreversible. It went well beyond mere grief, they knew well. Providence was not going to supply hearty males in numbers sufficient to replace the two millions who had been killed or made severely invalid. In many case, the women’s lives would be sterile in every way.
Absence can be felt as keenly as pain. Perhaps, the absence of thousands of grandfathers was like the kind of pain amputees are said to suffer in their missing limbs. There was a solemn underlying sadness all around that was not explained by anyone or by anything and that was part of normalcy. This perpetual sadness induced a degree of unresponsiveness, including to small children. It was the kind of neutrality you expect to find in many (but not all) old people but it was present among the middle-aged and even among the young.
Paradoxically, precisely because of the shortage of old men, I grew up in an old society, one that had aged before its time. I realized bit by bit, and first on the occasion of visiting non-belligerent Sweden at seventeen, and then, the US, at eighteen, that the “war to end all wars” had broken a central spring of French society. One hundred years later, I think it’s still broken. It’s a society that has not felt young since the summer of 1914. It’s a society where still today, many of the young sound old.” [Reference at end of essay]
Again paradoxically, grandfathers everywhere support and feed the best expressions of the condition of childhood. They sit you on the merry-go-round and they buy you candy. They don’t make you chose as parents often do. I have seen it at the beach a hundred times: Mothers force their children to go home; grandpas tell the kids in their charge that there is no rush.
With all this consciousness of the very long term societal consequences of war, I am not a pacifist. World War Two was fought for next to no reason by nation-states that seems to have gone on automatic. Yet, some wars are worth fighting. The Second World War was such a war. As they made their way into enemy territory and after their victory, the Allies discovered that the reasons to force Germany and Japan to capitulate were even better than anyone had thought. The West gave rise to the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, all steps in he direction of greater rationality and humanity toward others, especially strangers. The massacres of World War Two were like a giant rollback of this progress. They made Westerners, they still make Westerners, doubt their capacity for virtuousness. Today, when we allow little girls to be sold into sexual slavery without intervening forcefully, we lose a piece of our humanity. It’s like pulling hard on a thread of the fabric of civilization itself. The war against ISIS, right now pursued rather softly by the Obama administration, is another war worth fighting. For one thing savagery is probably contagious to some extent. People of good will have to stop it because they catch the virus themselves.
Pacifist liberals hide from this obvious responsibility of the civilized behind a wish to not sacrifice “American lives.” This objection loses much of its force when the military is, as ours is, a completely volunteer force. My grandfather, by contrast, was a draftee, a civilian who died a lieutenant promoted from the ranks because all his seniors had been mowed down. I think civilian soldiers die more than professional soldiers. First, they are always ill-trained. Second, they are so abundant that there must be a tendency to treat them as cheap cannon fodder.And, incidentally, speaking of America’s professional army let me deal right now with common objections that are both routine and false to the assertion that ours is a volunteer force: Individuals serving in the American military today are better educated, healthier, and they have higher IQs on the average than their contemporaries. That case is closed.
Personally, I find it difficult to take seriously the expressions of regrets regarding the deaths in combat of a relatively small number of volunteers when the same keeners have nothing to say about the stupid, useless “War on Drugs.” That futile thirty years campaign is indirectly responsible for the murders of young black Americans by other young black Americans in numbers roughly equivalent to all of our military deaths since Vietnam. And I have not even started mentioning the many more Americans who die needlessly on American roads. I say “needlessly” because about half of road deaths involve alcohol. It’s not difficult to imagine penal sanctions that would quickly extinguish DUI, this purely self-indulgent conduct. So, about 15,000 Americans died last year alone in meaningless events that could have been avoided. The people who lament loudly in public the meanigful deaths in war of American volunteers never have anything to say about that repetitive carnage.
My grandfather, that forever young man, would forgive me, I think, for seeing hypocrisy and mindlessness in American pacifism.
“We can’t be the policeman of the world,” add both dogmatic left-liberals and mindless libertarians. Well, read the paper and see what happens when the US does not act the policeman. Pleased?
Here is my book of memoirs: “I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography”. It’s available at the following address at Amazon:
Three recent books of mine are available on Amazon Kindle and on some other reading devices. None is a scholarly book. Two are in English and one in French. The first is: “I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography” (2014). This one also exists in paperback. You can obtain the paperback from me through this clever email address: email@example.com, or from Amazon. It’s listed under my name: Jacques Delacroix. My second book in English exists as I write only in electronic form. It’s entitled: “Indecent Stories for Decent Women” (2015) It’s under the pen name: “Jean René Adolph.” Reflecting on its title will suggest why I am not using my real name in this one. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B018ZYR9DS
I have a third book, written in French, that is completely different from the others: “Les Pumas de grande banlieue: histoires d’émigration” (2014) .This one is also only in electronic form. It’s under my real name: Jacques Delacroix.
I pay attention to feedback. Thank you. I am open to sponsoring and commercial publication of any of the three.