Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Great War….not

“FLASH: More than 6,000 American soldiers killed yesterday in Afghanistan.”

Of course it’s not true. It’s not even remotely imaginable, either.

100 years ago, that kind of body count was completely imaginable, In fact, it was so routine it wasn’t even reported in large headlines.

Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War: Explaining World War I makes plain what we can’t understand today: in almost 4½ years of desperately bloody fighting, the good guys (Entente) and the bad guys (German-dominated Central Powers) killed about 9 million men, more than 6,000 per day, every day, for roughly 1,500 days.

Here’s a specific: on July 1, 1916, British and French troops went over the top at the Somme River. At day's end, the British had almost 60,000 casualties, including about 20,000 dead. Almost 2 out of 3 British officers who led the assault were killed.

They would have had trouble keeping up with the burials during WWI if massive artillery barrages hadn’t literally blown to bits so many of the dead.

A survivor recalled that the repeatedly churned earth around the trenches and in No Man’s Land was almost impossibly fetid because it was actually saturated with bits of decomposing human flesh.

What kept the men in those deadly trenches? Ferguson says ”…men stuck by their pals or mates…But the crucial point is that men fought because they did not mind fighting…murder and death were not the things soldiers disliked about the war…revenge was a motivation…Others undoubtedly relished killing for its own sake…men underrated their own chances of being killed…most men assumed the bells of hell would not ring for them…”

Of course now we can say it was not “a lovely war.” It should have been unendurable, but it wasn’t….

Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (New York: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, 1998, repr. 1999), 436, 446-47.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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