H. Patricia Hynes: Legacy, tragedy, of World War 1

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GREENFIELD — Veterans Day, celebrated this past Monday, began as a commemoration of World War 1. WW 1 was the first industrial war. Poison gases, flamethrowers, aerial bombing, submarines, and machine guns intensified the scale of war wreckage and war dead, setting the norm for 20th and 21st century wars.

By government policy, British war dead were not sent home lest the public turn against the war. Instead they were buried in vast graveyards near battle sites in France and Belgium. Even today, Belgian and French farmers plowing fields in places of mass death on the Western Front unearth an estimated million pounds of war debris and soldiers' bones each year. During the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Pentagon policy prohibited media coverage of U.S. war dead arriving at Dover Air Base in Delaware until the ban was lifted, with conditions, in 2015. Many regarded the ban as hiding the human cost of war that could turn the public against the war.

World War I soldiers had only each other in the face of death, a reality incarnated in the 1914 Christmas truce. Soldiers on both sides spontaneously lay down their weapons, crossed over barbed wire and shell holes and greeted each other with Christmas gifts of food, beer, champagne and schnapps. Together they buried corpses of the fallen that lay in the narrow no-man's land between them, played soccer with tin cans for balls, sang carols, took photos, and exchanged mementos and addresses.

The unique comradeship of war lingered also with Erich Maria Remarkque, who enlisted at 19 in the World War I German army. He admitted bitterly that a sense of the romance of war, propagated by the state's total propaganda campaign, turned high school boys into willing recruits for slaughter. Some ten years after the war's end, he published his first anti-war novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front." In perhaps the most incisive moment of Remarkque's novel, a young German soldier gazes upon a young French soldier he has killed and ponders their common humanity, with words that undercut the war's hard-bitten hatred and national chauvinism. "Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony."

Of the estimated $52 billion cost of World War I, industry war profiteers pocketed nearly one third. More than 21,000 new American millionaires and billionaires emerged from the human ashes of the war, while the federal government was mired in post-war debt — a debt paid for by working people's taxes.

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Little has changed with regard to war greed except that war industry profits have grown exponentially together with the national budget for the military. As a country, the U.S. has moved from being a reluctant, late entrant into World War 1 to being the premier merchant of death in weapons sales and premier militarist nation, engaged in a perpetual state of war waged from an empire of military bases.

World War I, ultimately, was an immense and complex setback for democracy. Forty million solders and civilians were casualties of that war. Elevated rates of suicide followed the war. 400,000 African laborers, forced to carry war supplies by Britain, died from disease and from being worked to death.

Total, industrial war seasoned warring countries for conducting atrocities in future wars. Both sides used chemical warfare, which foreshadowed Agent Orange in Vietnam. The British blockaded Germany to starve the country into submission; cities were bombed, which would be replicated and augmented to extreme levels in World War II, culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After a week of travel along the Western Front and walking among miles of cemeteries for British, Belgium, French and other soldiers killed in war, historian Adam Hochschild finds a lone, out of the way plot with a large cross and a dozen small ones honoring the 1914 Christmas truce. He notes that the modest memorial was near where they had played soccer together and that on one of the small crosses someone had carved the word "imagine."

H. Patricia Hynes directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice; https://traprock.org


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