(the misadventures of an expatriate corporate dropout)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Verdun has me thinking.

I've mentioned before how much I enjoyed Robert Daley's book, Portraits of France. In it he writes several vignettes regarding France ... observations on cities and occurrences throughout time. They are all compelling in their own way. I've had some time in my meanderings to re-read some of these stories.

One in particular struck me today and it is in regards to Verdun. Rereading this story made me melancholy. Man's refusal to learn lessons from history, relatively recent history is nothing if not depressing.

Daley's story doesn't attempt to recreate or recount every aspect of the battle of Verdun. He tells of a trip back to Verdun he made to visit certain notable locations and personnages. While all of the story moved me, a certain observation gave me pause. He is speaking of one of the heroes of Verdun, a Lt. Col. Emile Driant. Driant was 61 years old at the time of the battle, too old to be there but yet committed to the cause. He was an old school officer who believed in being on the field with his troops. He was lionized as a hero by the French when he died on the battlefield. But was he heroic? He led them to their deaths, foolish and misguidedly patriotic deaths. Unnecessary deaths. Deaths in the name of duty and honor and dignity. Or so the propaganda goes. He speaks of the realities of this particular war and how "it is not weapons that make wars possible, but ideas, and it is duty and honor that lead men straight to the most insidious idea of all, which is heroism". He speaks of these solders, left "eating, sleeping, shitting, freezing, day after day in the same two feet of muddy trench and then subject them to a ten-hour bombardment -- when you do this you remove from them all dignity."

I suppose in our modern-day wars, improvements have been wrought. Perhaps they aren't sleeping and shitting and freezing in trenches. Instead they are baking in the sun, reaching exhaustion through extended and multiple tours of duty. Cut off from home and family with no real knowledge of an exact return date.

In either case, 1918 or 2008, the madness that is war can have the same result Robert Daley speaks of, namely, "reduc(ing) them to the level of slavering animals. They exist on the level of animals. Their psyches are overpowered by the most basic and also the basest of emotions, namely fear and rage. They become crazed. Are crazed men responsible for their actions? ... The hero may have no more control of himself than the coward."

Daley questions the heroism of Driant. And his motivations. As we should our own military and militaristic leaders. Are the lives of our men worth the shallow ideals thrust upon us by leaders seeking fame, a name of their own, a place in history?

In the general area of Verdun there were nine obliterated villages. Not just attacked. or mostly destroyed. No, completely obliterated. bombed to the point that for decades nothing would grow where these villages existed. I, for one, was unaware that in WWI man's ability to wrought the most evil of weapons was already in full bloom.

Daley's reveals that at the site of one of these obliterated villages, Fleury, there is a memorial which was erected in 1967.

Within this exhibit, there are cases with uniforms, equipment, weaponry ... not just of the French soldiers but also of the competing army. Also included are phot blowups on the wall. And this is where it really struck home to me. His words. He shares that one photo shows a French soldier, lying faceup on the ground. Fully clothed. Minus both legs at mid-thigh. Another photo displays a perfectly intact hand layin on top of the mud - not attached to anything. He goes on to say, "Press censorship being absolute on both sides of the lines, such photos did not appear until years after the war -- they might have hurt the war effort, don't you know. It was all right to sho German corpses in French publications and French corpses in German ones, but no the reverse." He also reveals that in copies of L'Illustration, the number one French picture weekly at the time, they regularly showed captured German trenches full of corpses, but in hundreds of pages and thousands of photos, there are no corpses of French soldiers anywhere. In fact, week after week, life in the trenches was made to seem not half bad.

In real life 800,000 young men died in Verdun. On their OWN LAND. In total, France lost nearly 1.4 million soldiers in WWI, Germany over 2 million, Russia 1.8 million, UK over 800,000 and the U.S. slightly over 116,000.

WWII claimed over 25 million military deaths. Staggering. France lost over 200,000.

People joke about France these days. Being 'nancies'. Cowards. I was pondering our whole bout of anti-Frenchiness in the US, our embracing of "Freedom Fries".

It is hard to toodle down a lovely country lane in France without encountering a war memorial of some sort. Personally, I think perhaps France and her people lost their taste for blood early on. Maybe they aren't 'nancies'. Maybe they're the smart ones.

In America we pat ourselves on the back for reducing "collateral damage". For fighting less bloody wars. At least on our side. Sure, we have reduced the deaths. But just as with Verdun, our propaganda campaigns are in full effect. We don't see coverage of the dead returning. We don't have well-aired reports of numbers of wounded and the havoc wreaked on their lives. We don't have running totals broadcast of total deaths and wounded, on all sides. We hear reports of how the surge is working. We are immature and cavalier as a nation. The closest we have come is 3,000 deaths perpetrated by 19 madmen. And we have reacted as if we had just had our own Verdun. Can you imagine a war on American land? with hundreds of thousands dead and countless more wounded? Of living with the fear and decimation of the type we have wrought on the Iraqis? or Afghanis?

We have a candidate who crows that he "knows how to win wars". We have a candidate who has promised us there will be more wars". We have a military candidate with his hand on the trigger, just itching to get it going. Humming bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.

Already, in my first few days, I have been pelted with a repeated question. Can Obama win? People are afraid of 4 more years of a republican president.

I know. I just moved to France. You were expecting me to regale you at first with stories of my new home. My happy little village. My new task list and daily encounters. They are coming, I assure you.

But I am also committed to being more present here in this somewhat new and strange land. I want to soak up history here, old and new. I want to learn French. Feel French. I am pondering and thinking and noticing.

So what's my point? Hell if I know. Other than sadness at man's inability to pay attention. To learn from the past. For citizens' lack of ability to take heed and recognize when they are being misled...and just lining up to get their daily ration of pap.


Randal Graves said...

Nothing quite says what a Manly Man of Manliness someone is like the desire for blowing the hell out of everyone.

I suspect that if Americans had world wars being fought on their home soil, they might pound their chests a wee bit less.

But hey, tell us more along the lines of your penultimate paragraph. We get enough of the last one as it is. I mean, this time, it'll be different!

Utah Savage said...

I tried to post my comment at the site you sent me to, but apparently I don't know my user name or my password. So here I am, where I'm so comfortable.

My reading about WWI started with the trilogy by Pat Barker who wrote about the war from the perspective of the real soldiers being treated in the hospitals in England. It's an excellent history of that war, and also an excellent view of what war does to the fighting men in those shit and blood filled trenches. What I like most about her work is that the characters were real people, One was a published poet.

Her work sent me to other writers. My friend Nick, the history professor has directed me to other writers whose subject is WWI. As to the question, Why do we learn nothing from history? And I think in this country, the answer is, We don't read or know anything about history. Remember, we are being governed by a President who doesn't read--a C student. A guy as dumb as the lowest among us--someone they'd like to have a beer with. Why? Because he's like one of them, that's why.

God I'm glad you are safely "home." Please keep us informed of what it feels like to be "home." I am an alien in Utah. One of the reasons I don't go out much is, there's nothing to see and no one to talk to. So it's you I have conversations with.

Utah Savage said...

I hope I won't piss you off with this, but I have nothing of interest or importance to say today. You do. So without even asking permission I have linked this piece to my site and told my readers to come here and read this piece.

Je ne regrette rien said...

RG-I'm slow. which one is penultimate? or do I have to choose. Yeah, saber rattling ain't so tough when it is thousands of miles away.

U.S.-I will check out your recommendation. I've always been a fan of Barbara Tuchman's work, I love history but never have enough time to truly conquer the deeper level of knowledge/understanding I yearn for. Instead, I shoot my mouth off! ha.

And why on earth would a link piss me off? How flattering ... hope I don't let your readers down.

Randal Graves said...

What utah said. Tell us about home. By the way, since you've arrived, the Cheney administration is still evil and Dems are still spineless. We haven't changed a bit!

Utah Savage said...

Thanks Randal, I've been waiting for that. "What Utah said" at last and not in your usual lazy, smartass way. You da man.

Stacey said...

Thanks for the evocative and provocative post. We are tremendously insulated here in our little corner of the globe where wars are fought a long ways away. If we open our eyes though, we might just see it hurting us here at home.

Last year I had the honor to treat a young veteran for his injuries. He was not struck, shot, or otherwise wounded, but this 20-something year old young man had not only seen two of his closest friends blown apart right in front of him, but lived with daily physical pain caused by the heavy armor and weaponry he was required to carry 14 hours a day, plus the general constant state of extreme tension and muscular readiness.

The casualties aren't always the ones with missing limbs or the ones with headstones. Maybe if we in the USA were a little bit more aware of things outside our little privileged spheres, we'd do a bit less namecalling and saber-rattling.

Randal Graves said...

utah, you yourself said I get to places first, so I can't say that because you're late! EST, baby!

What stacey said is chilling. I don't think any of us could even contemplate having to live with seeing carnage, survive and know that others haven't. Yeah, that's real romantic.

Je ne regrette rien said...

Stacey-thank you. It is sobering to travel through parts of Europe and encounter monuments with rows and rows of names from various wars. many times 2, 3 or even more brothers. Yes we have our Vietnam memorial, striking to be sure, but it doesn't compare to the sacrifices every tiny hamlet, every village, has made...and for what? At least in the old days, one could sometimes see a reason for the war.

RG-yeah, how naive we are.