Friday, November 9, 2007

Veterans' Day

The 11th of November is Veteran's Day. It seems to mean a little more to people this year than it used to—ten years ago it was just one of those holidays commemorated by a few old men and their families down at the American Legion or the VFW or the ITAM, who remembered crawling through mud and the sound of flying steel and the faces friends no longer there, while the rest of the country celebrated it with a 10% off sale at Target or Spag's. Now that we have more wars going on and a fresh generation of people going off to the fighting and returning home from it, Veteran's Day has taken on a new polish. I wish it didn't require a lot of American blood to put a new gleam on the old holiday, but it seems that's what it takes.

Veteran's Day was, until the late 1940s, known as Armistice Day—it commemorates the day on which, at 11 AM, a cease-fire (or armistice) went into effect on the Western Front, ending the fighting in France and Belgium, as well as on the high seas. The time—"the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month"—was deliberately chosen by the negotiators, with the hopes of burning a memorable and symbolic moment into the world's consciousness. The fighting formally ended in November 1918, and American troops began sailing home in January 1919.

American Expeditionary Force had begun arriving in France in June 1917, and first saw combat in July 1918 at the Battle of Le Hamel. The year-long interval between arrival and combat was taken up by training—the US troops had been shipped to France without having had any but the most basic training, and although the French and British wanted to commit the AEF to battle immediately to patch up holes in their own regiments, General Pershing insisted to President Wilson as well as to the Allied High Command that the AEF should not be sent into battle untrained—it was a genuine moment of cognitive dissonance for me when I realized that the option of sending untrained men into battle even existed in the first place. For that matter, by 1917 the Allied powers had come to believe that all you really needed for trench warfare was warm bodies by the shipload, and a lot of artillery.

According to the figures provided by the American Legion and the VFW, 4,734,991 Americans served in the military during the war. 53,402 were killed in battle, 204,002 wounded in battle, and 63,114 died of other causes during what was, essentially, five months of fighting. To put this in context, the British Empire alone lost nearly half a million men killed and wounded during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The thing to remember is, this was not the end of the war, even though the AEF essentially packed up and sailed home as soon as it could. That is, however, where most Americans think the war ended— the Yanks sailed across the Atlantic, whupped ass and ended the war, and then turned around and sailed home. That's how Americans like their wars—short, noble, victorious, and then there's a parade and everyone goes back to normal, trying to pull the blankets back over their heads.

The armistice was a truce, not a peace treaty, and the peace conference wrangling went on until June of 1919. The fighting could have resumed—the only thing keeping that from happening was that most of the parties were too exhausted to continue, and in view of the mutinies in the French and German armies (the German army had virtually disintegrated), it is unlikely that all but the harshest measures could have forced them back into battle once more.

The First World War has long intrigued me, not least because it is so overshadowed by the conflict that began in 1939. I know a fair number of Second World War veterans, but I've never met any First World War veterans, however—most of them were dying by the time I was born, just as the Second World War vets are in old age now, and according to the American Legion there's only about twenty WWI veterans left—they'd all have to be over a hundred years old now. The WWI generation has never received the sort of well-deserved attention that the WWII one has seen during the last ten years. That saddens me. As someone with a love of history that borders on the obsessive, it perturbs me whenever stories die, unrecorded, with the people who could have told them.

The sheer momentousness of the war also awes me—this was the biggest watershed moment in world history in centuries. If you want a dividing line of history, a professor of mine once showed me, the First World War made a better start to the 20th century than the year 1900—the world in 1914 had far more in common with the world of 1814 than it did with the world in 1919. The First World War brought the end of empires that had endured since the Middle Ages, but which now dissolved practically overnight. The aftershocks of the war went on well into the 1920s—the Russian Civil War, heavy fighting in the former Ottoman Empire (including the Armenian Genocide), revolution in Ireland, a virtual civil war between left-wing and right-wing factions in Germany, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The British Empire was nearly bankrupted by the war, and France and Germany took decades to recover from the enormous casualties. This war did a great deal to shape the world in which we live now—it destroyed most of the world's major monarchies, opened the door to Bolshevism and fascism, destroyed moderate socialism, and so discredited liberal democracies that many countries just gave up on that form of government outright.

So when those brave Yanks came home from the trenches and had their tickertape parades down 5th Avenue, what kind of country did they come home to? Well, there was a sizeable element in American society that thought the social cohesion and control mechanisms produced during the war were very good things, and they were very interested in keeping the 'war emergency powers' in effect during peacetime in order to keep order in a turbulent world full of Bolsheviks, labor unionists, and uppity Negroes.

Rationing was still in effect. Many soldiers had trouble finding jobs, because war industries that had profited so much from the federal government's largesse during the war now decided layoffs were in order. The government was still exercising stringent controls over free speech, the press, and the mails—'subversive' magazines or newspapers were simply warehoused by the Post Office and never delivered, and their authors and editors investigated by the federal government. The "Spanish flu" epidemic of 1918-1919—the deadliest pandemic of modern times—acquired its name because although the disease was first documented in Fort Riley, Kansas, most news of it was suppressed to avoid hurting the war effort. Spain was not involved in the war, and did not restrict reporting of the disease—it was thus nicknamed "the Spanish flu" because most of the news coverage of it came from Spain.

Armies of volunteer spies, vigilantes, and Bolshevik-hunters like the American Protective League, which had a membership of over 250,000 people in 600 cities and was officially endorsed by the Justice Department, operated with no legal restraint, spying on and physically attacking anyone suspected of being 'subversive,' including union men, Socialists, Communists, Catholics, anarchists, German immigrants, outspoken blacks or other minorities, etc. Segregation was still in full effect. In many states, black combat veterans were intimidated into not wearing their uniforms or medals—if they did so, they were frequently beaten or lynched by white mobs.

For that matter, thousands of American troops were still scattered farther afield after the Armistice, on combat duty at Murmansk and other locations in the Soviet Union; they would remain there until March of 1920, with no clear purpose, little help or support, horrible living conditions in an Arctic climate, and virtually forgotten by the American public, most of whom didn't even know they were there because the North Russia campaign generally didn't make the newspapers.

As bad as things were there, they were worse elsewhere—even in Great Britain, things very nearly came unglued. The Labour government that had fought the war was in dire straits over how badly the war had been fought, and HM Government spent an enormous amount of time and energy in one of the great whitewash jobs of modern history, attempting to bury the truth of the Imperial General HQ's appalling incompetence. The British Army's official history of the war was compiled mostly from General Haig's records, prepared by one of Haig's close friends, and suitably tweaked by various other persons in the establishment so as to bury the ordure of failure as deeply as possible. This was, after all, the only war of which I am aware, in which officers were penalized for not trying hard enough to win if they managed to keep most of their men alive.

Imagine a war in which generals would deliberately do the same thing over and over again, even though it never worked. The only thing that really changed was that each time they tried piling up more and more men for the attack, as if hitting an anvil with a hammer one size larger will make a difference. The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) very nearly won the war in 1917—the Germans had been fighting on the defensive until the summer of 1917, letting the British and French beat their heads bloody against heavy fortifications, and when they finally went on the offensive on the West, the French and British armies were very nearly destroyed.

Throughout the war, the French and British governments demonstrated an appallingly thorough indifference to the massive casualties suffered by their colonial and Commonwealth troops. In the parlance of the Imperial General Staff, soldiers were simply "human material," to use the term employed in wartime records —men were simply another kind of bullet to expend. Gen. Sir Douglas Haig—whose singularly inappropriate nickname was "Lucky"-- frequently used Indian, African, Irish, Canadian, and ANZAC troops as shock troops on the Western Front in an attempt to avoid British losses. In one instance, of 3,000 men of the 1st South African Brigade sent into battle at Delville Wood in 1916, only 768 survived alive and unwounded. The Lahore and Meerut divisions from the Indian Army, deployed on the Western Front at Ypres in 1914, lost half their strength in a month's fighting. Haig later responded to the deaths of 23,000 Australians in six weeks on Pozieres Ridge at the Somme by saying "Luckily, their losses have been fairly small."

One British commander, Sir Charles Townhsend, was trapped with his men in the village of Kut, near Baghdad, after attacking an entrenched Ottoman army that outnumbered his own force three to one. The British were forced to surrender in April of 1916; Townshend himself spent the rest of the war in as a gentleman guest of the Ottoman government, living in a spare palace and attended by a nobleman's household of servants, while his eleven thousand men were massacred or starved to death in the desert. Any news of the battle of Kut was, of course, strictly suppressed in the news media. Townshend was elected to Parliament in 1920, but resigned after his actions during and after the siege of Kut became public knowledge; he died in 1924, disgraced and nearly penniless.

Haig proved almost equally callous towards British casualties—rather than admit his methods were catastrophic, he preferred to coordinate government and media in a general cover-up of the scale of casualties at the Somme (as well as on the Western Front in general) and, in an interview with the London Times, passed off the fruitless death or maiming of 100,000 men in three days of fighting as "substantial progress." Most of the troops Haig ordered to their deaths at the Somme were relatively new volunteers from the 'New Army' raised by Secretary of War Horatio Kitchener in 1915, the 'Old Contemptibles" of the original British Expeditionary Force having been virtually annihilated at the First Battle of Ypres (10/31-11/22 1914), only months after the outbreak of war. Kitchener himself, one of the British Empire's leading 19th-century military figures after his victories at Omdurman and in the Boer War, was killed when the ship he was aboard was sunk by a German submarine.

For me, the most mesmerizing thing about the First World War is the sheer wastefulness and horror of it all. Never have so many people been killed to achieve so little; the entire Western Front was effectively a vast machine into which hundreds of thousands of young men were shoveled, year after year, to be ground up and spat out, in a stalemate where lines of battle barely changed from one year to the next—men basically climbed out of one trench and died trying to get into the other guy's trench, a hundred or so yards away. Get ten thousand men killed to capture an acre of mud—what's the point? There was no great ideological crusade in the war, no struggle against fascism or another religion, just two groups of generals, aristocrats, and ministers who blundered into an accidental war and then became obsessed with winning the war for its' own sake-- war as the means became war as an end in itself. That could have been me lying dead in Passchendaele, and if I was there it probably means you'd be there too, reader, along with most of the other people our age, lying right next to me as the flies try to decide who to eat first. If the generation that fought the Second World War deserves its nickname of the 'greatest generation,' then that which fought the First World War deserves to be dubbed the butchered generation.

The Australians and New Zealanders remember this better than we Americans do—ask them about ANZAC day and playing two-up in memory of all the men killed at Gallipoli. Those two Dominions, out of a combined population of about 5.1 million, contributed approximately 432,000 fighting men, of whom 280,000 would be killed or wounded—something like 5% (one person in twenty) of the combined populations of Australia and New Zealand were casualties in the First World War.

Most people these days probably help themselves to sleep at night by believing that this sort of thing could never happen again. Then again, people probably believed much the same thing in the spring of 1914, before a group of backwoods terrorists blew up a relatively minor political functionary in Sarajevo. We may be more cynical about life and the world that people were a century ago, at least in some matters, but we as a society have certainly not lost our capacity for self-delusion, especially about whether we're leading or being led.

General Melchett: "That's the spirit, George. If nothing else works, then a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through!"

I happened to be watching Blackadder Goes Forth recently, and while it's not my favorite series out of the Blackadder catalog, it's absolutely the most poignant, and it's so appropriate to this topic that I can't help but include a bit on it so as to sum things up. It takes place in the trenches on the Western Front, and in the background of all the heckling of higher authority, cunning plots to get out of messy spots, and razor-edged wit, there's a pervasive shadow of doom and hopelessness that the cast and directors deliberately constructed, and the humor has more teeth to it because the stakes for the characters are higher.

None of them can escape—not George the gung-ho Edwardian public school twit whose dad was at school with half the Imperial General Staff, not Baldrick the…well, I guess 'proletarian' fits well enough… not even the ever-twisting Edmund Blackadder himself. They're all inescapably doomed, even as General Melchett sits in his command chateau thirty miles away from the fighting, playing with toy soldiers. You're not supposed to like Blackadder in any of his incarnations—he's sneaky, underhanded, rude, and arrogant, but the moment when he reaches the end of his tether, gives up, and effectively says "ok, that's it, let's go get killed now" is one of the heaviest moments I've seen in any kind of TV or movie. Here's the conclusion of the last episode, titled "Goodbyeee," courtesy of Youtube.

Edmund Blackadder: "Well, you've come to the right place, Bob. A war hasn't been fought *this* badly since Olaf the Hairy, High Chief of all the Vikings, accidently ordered 80,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside."

Now listening to: The Clash, 'Something About England'

I missed the fourteen-eighteen war
But not the sorrow afterwards
With my father dead, my mother ran off
My brothers took the pay of hoods
The twenties turned the north was dead
The hunger strike came marching south
At the garden party not a word was said
The ladies lifted cake to their mouths

The next war began, my ship sailed
With battle orders writ in red
In five long years of bullets and shells
We left ten million dead
The few returned to old Piccadily
We limped around Leicester Square
The world was busy rebuilding itself
The architects could not care

But how could we know when I was young
All the changes that were to come?
All the photos in the wallets on the battlefield
And now the terror of the scientific sun
There was masters an' servants an' servants an' dogs
They taught you how to touch your cap
But through strikes an' famine an' war an' peace
England never closed this gap

No comments: