By November 1918, the American Expeditionary Force was a battle tested army. The cost in blood was immense.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
By November 1917, the United States was building up arms and material — young men who would die in the mud of France — for the long billed war to end all wars.
One year later, on November 11th, 1918 the war would be drawn to its bloody conclusion. Germany, after smashing the Bolshevik and White Russian armies and concluding a punitive treaty at Brest-Litvosk in March 1918, would in just three short weeks turn the entire might of what remained of its armed forces towards the Ludendorff Offensive.
The American Expeditionary Forces under General “Blackjack” Pershing would be instrumental in a war that counted victories in numbers of dead. At the Second Battle of the Marne, and finally in the American’s own contributions at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. By September 1918, Pershing commanded the largest American army that up to that time had ever been fielded — over 500,000 men and surpassing the numbers under General Grant and the Army of the Potomac.
By November 1918, the American Expeditionary Force was a battle tested army. The cost in blood was immense. Over 300,000 casualties and 50,000 dead.
Flanders Field by John McCrae was written after the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, but it is the most iconic of the Armistice Day poetry. McCrae — who was working at a field hospital at the time — remarked how poppies sprung forth upon the graves of the dead soldiers in what was otherwise a wasteland of war:
Amazingly enough, McCrae initially thought the poem was rubbish, and placed it where it belonged — in the trash can. Fellow soldiers thought the poem was masterful, and though rejected by Spectator was finally published in Punch in December 1915.
100 years ago, the horrors of the battlefield were the memories of grandfathers from the War of the Rebellion (so called before the moniker “The Civil War” had truly entered the American lexicon). Their fathers might have remembered a short and glorious little war in the grasp for empire known as the Spanish-American War, but nothing on the scale of what their sons would experience in The Great War.
Their sons in turn would experience the same slaughter in another “Great War” storming the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima.
If there is anything instructive about today, it is the fact that 100 years ago the horrors of mass casualties were singularly condensed into the experiences of the Civil War. Petersburg was our trench warfare; Longstreet was the sage that predicted the future of defensive warfare. The First World War would introduce us to the loss of romanticism on an industrial scale, not on a personal one.
By 1918, the horrors of combat and the glory of victory would demand a prevention on the scale of Versailles. That lack of geopolitical vision would introduce a new war on a scale that dwarfed the first, which would then in turn introduce a slow-motion Versailles on a now-defunct Soviet Union.
Yet how many today are willing to “take up our quarrel with the foe” of the postmodern age? We know what they are — a gripping nihilism, a lack of faith in institutions, the treatment of all disagreement as hate speech — all of these problems are beyond politics.
Former Speaker John Boehner, who gave a remarkably frank and open interview to Politico Magazine where he opined on what he thought it would take to bring a divide nation together:
Boehner believes Americans are ill-informed because of their retreat into media echo chambers, one of two incurable causes of the country’s polarization. Another is inextricably related: the unwillingness of lawmakers to collaborate across the aisle, for fear of recriminations from the base. Boehner says the fact he and Obama golfed together only once—and agreed that it was usually better for him to sneak into the White House—speaks to how the two parties punish compromise. He doesn’t foresee this toxic political climate improving, ticking off potential fixes—term limits, redistricting reform—that he says won’t make a bit of difference. “It’s going to take an intervening event for Americans to realize that first, we are Americans,” he says. An intervening event? “Something cataclysmic,” he responds, gazing upward.
When we break faith with those who die, cataclysms unite the whole.
Yet for a generation that considers itself the most educated, the most empathetic, with the most tools available at its disposal to resolve the most pressing social issues of its day? Are such cataclysms inevitable — as men such as Steve Bannon, authors such as Peter Turchin, and historians such as ibn Khaldun suggest?
The warnings in Flanders Field stands in stark contrast to the Theodore Parker’s (and by extension, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s) of the world:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
History doesn’t bend towards justice at all. Civilization does, and civilization is not transmuted through osmosis, but by means of education. The arc of history is much like the effect of water upon rock — it erodes. Cataclysmic events remind us of this historic truth.
Kurt Vonnegut had an excellent line that emerged again in the pages of The Atlantic which remind us of what we lost in the transition from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1953:
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.
History is not the Voice of God, despite Nietzsche’s attempt to kill Him off. Yet the question that Nietzsche raises in The Gay Science — the manual for every nihilist in the postmodern age — has a peculiar answer indeed:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
The answer to Nietzsche’s question according to McCrae is not water, but blood — sacrificed to hear the sudden and powerful silence of Vonnegut’s God.
One shudders to think that the moral arc of the universe is paid for in human blood. One might consider an alternative method… but the example of the agnus Dei seems so very much out of style nowadays.