This post was written in response to hearing some stupid teenager asking about what “Armistice Day” on the calendar meant and then responding “oh. Who cares about World War I? That was like, forever ago. It’s not relevant now.”
There will come soft rains
And the smell of ground
And swallows circling
With their shimmering sound
And frogs in the pools
Singing at night
And wild plum trees
In tremulous white.
Robins will wear
Their feathery fire
Whistling their whims
On a low fence wire.
And not one will know of war
Not one will care when
It is done.
Not one would mind
Neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished
And Spring herself
When she awoke at dawn
Would scarcely know
That we were gone.
— There Will Come Soft Rains, Sara Teasdale, 1920
I first read this poem when I read the story by Ray Bradbury “There Will Come Soft Rains.” It’s probably one of the first poems I took the trouble to memorize without it being an assignment. This poem inspired one of my earliest stories “The House of the Ancient Writ” which got published in several literary magazines in my home state back when I was in high school. It also inspired the story “A Moment Too Late” (well, it and the movie Some Kind of Wonderful. Hey, lay off. I was fifteen!) which also netted me a fair bit of attention and resulted in me going a whole week without being harassed at school, as well as being published in quite a few magazines.
At any rate, it’s a hauntingly beautiful poem written in the aftermath of the Great War (what we Americans call World War I).
Many people reading this will take a moment to think about all of the veterans of the various wars we’ve fought in today. They’ll place flags on graves. They’ll maybe take some time to give a phone call or email to any veterans in their families. Others — especially the young and thoughtless — won’t even understand the significance of Armistice Day. After all, the Great War ended almost a century ago. Surely it can’t have any bearing on life today, right?
Wrong. So terribly, tragically, fucking wrong.
The twentieth century was a time of many revolutions. It saw the blossoming of the Industrial Revolution, the Education Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Women’s Suffrage, the Sexual Revolution, the Technological (or Digital) Revolution. The Space Race. The Nuclear Age. But it was also a charnel house. It gave us the first Industrial Era war (the Great War). It gave us World War II. The Cold War. The Korean War. The Berlin War. The Berlin Airlift. Vietnam. The Doomsday Clock. The Iranian Revolution. Operation: Desert Storm. The Dissolution of the Soviet Union. The twentieth century was turbulent, filled with highs and lows. Never have we, as a species, come closer to the greatness inherent within us and never have we, as a species, come closer to annihilating ourselves, leaving nothing but dust, bones, and the skeletal remains of once-great cities to attest to our turbulent and momentary existence.
And the whole damned thing started with the Great War. The Great War set the tone. The Great War irrevocably and unalterably changed the balance of power on planet Earth. The Great War showed us the horrors we are capable of. It overthrew five hundred some-odd years of history and flung the oddest of oddball of nations on a trajectory for greatness.
So don’t ever fucking tell me that the Great War doesn’t matter. It does.
Europe in the early twentieth century truly was a foreign land to all of us — American or modern European. None of us born after the Great War can even begin to understand the constraints, the conceits, the concepts under which our grandparents, great grandparents and, (for some of us) great-great grandparents lived. Only those of us who have delved deeply into history can begin to wrap our minds around it. Back then, women didn’t have a voice — unless they could influence their husbands. Their “rights,” such as they were, were subsumed by the doctrine of coverture by their fathers and their husbands. Courtship consisted of men escorting their potential brides under the ever-watchful eyes of chaperones. A man who wished to woo a particular woman had first to receive the permission of her father. Yes, yes, bordellos existed. Very few men of any caste came to marriage as virgins — such visits to houses of ill-repute were considered a milestone of manhood. And men — all men who were able-bodied — were part of the army in most countries. Officers were drawn from the ranks of the upper-class and nobility. Every country thought itself better than the others. Every country knew itself, by blood and honor, to be superior. Only the United States stood apart in that regard and even she had her prejudices (and if you doubt that, look at her treatment of the Irish and of the Eastern European immigrants during this era). “For King and Country!” cried the British. “Pour la gloire de la France!” cried the Frenchmen. Europe had expended its blood and treasure building empires during the 1800s. Britain and France reigned supreme in that. Spain gave a good showing. In the 1900s, after unification, Italy and Germany made plays for rulership of the world. The United States, alone among Western nations, had found that imperialism left a bad aftertaste in the wake of the Spanish-American war and had little desire to expand itself. (Scratch an American, even today, and you’re going to find an isolationist). Alliances were formed. Vows to stand together against the Other — the ones who were ravenous and inferior — bound nation to nation against other nations. The Triple Entente. The Triple Alliance. The Central Powers. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the United States was busy praying that European troubles wouldn’t bleed over to their hemisphere. Americans couldn’t have cared less about what Europe did to themselves.
With these alliance systems, with these beliefs in superiority, with these hold-overs from the era of the Divine Right of Kings, Europe in the early 1900s was a powder-keg waiting for a spark. The assassination of the Arch-Duke Ferdinand was just that spark. The Alliance system kicked in. Every nation who had delusions towards being a major player (or, at least, allied with a major player) mobilized. The battle-lines were drawn. Young men — unmarried or married — were sent to the front lines by generals eager to win the last war and unwilling to go against their classical training and learn the tactics of modern warfare. And there, those men died. Human wave attacks saw thousands mowed down. Barbed wire saw thousands hang and bleed to death. Primitive chemical weapons, most famously mustard gas, saw thousands drop like screaming, writhing flies. And still, the generals ordered their men out of the trenches. Ordered them to hurl themselves at enemy embankments guarded by machine guns.
Europe’s fire died in the Great War. The sons that could have kept her greatness were mowed down at the Battle of Verdun. A costly combination of ignorant generals, of poorly-designed tactics, of the modern era meeting the older era head-on, shattered the heart of Europe. Whether French or British, Prussian or Russian, the men who could have kept Europe prominent died in the Great War. No, the United States did not “win” the war as many believe. The United States’ actions came too little, too late. The Great War ended in a stalemate though there was enough of a threat of bringing in fresh troops from the overseas power to cow Germany into signing the misbegotten Treaty of Versailles. The United States, influenced as ever by the Monroe Doctrine, withdrew back to its own borders, believing that the enlightened European nations could work things out on their own.
The Second World War was the inevitable child of the Great War. And we all know how that turned out, don’t we?
The Great War sucked the life and soul from Europe. Before the Great War, if Britain or France sneezed, the rest of the world — yes, even the United States — put on a sweater. America had been somewhat ascendant but her tendency towards isolationism, her desire not to become entangled in “European affairs” as counseled by George Washington, the father of the United States, was still strong within her people. Her reluctance towards empire — showcased by Mark Twain’s anger and his belief that America had betrayed her very soul by taking up imperialism at the end of the Spanish-American war — demonstrated her exceptionalism among nations. Think about it for a second. What other nation has had the ability to force others to bow to her? To force them to worship her as an Old Testament God? And has no desire to do it?
Scratch any one of us, and you’ll find an isolationist. It’s our default setting.
Europe, though, died in the Great War. It will be centuries before she recovers. No more do we talk about the British Empire and the British naval control of the trade routes. America stepped up to take that over. No more do we care about France and her leadership. France can’t even get her own naval flagship out of port without it losing a propeller. No more does anyone talk about German ascendance. No more does Europe define and decide the fate of the world. Because Europe committed suicide during the Great War.
Perhaps, in the centuries to come, Europe will recover. Europe will regain her place as the ruler of the world. Not under the current-European Union government — that’s a waste of ink, oxygen, and money. But, Europe ruled the world from the fall of Rome until the Great War. That’s over five hundred years. Perhaps, one day, she will rise again. But for now, we look back at her folly. At the Great War. At the sons she sent to the slaughterhouse. And we mourn them.
Those boys, those men, those young fathers — they were the victims. They were the innocent. They believed, Goddammit all, that their generals, born amongst silken sheets to the gentry, knew what they were doing. Those peasants, those farmers, those factory workers — they believed. They believed and they died for that belief. Their blood sanctified the soil of so many battle fields. Their sacrifices paved the way for that unholy and misbegotten Treaty of Versailles that led, inexorably, to the Second World War. Their blood, their lives, their souls laid the foundation for a shift in power across the Atlantic to Washington D.C.
Their lives brought us the end of the Pax Europa in the fires of the Second World War and the rise of the Pax Americana.
So don’t ever, ever, ever tell me that the Great War isn’t “relevant.”
The Great War and her poor murdered sons paved the foundation of the modern, digital age. Thus shall we remember them. Thus shall we honor them, poor misled boys that they were. Thus shall we humble ourselves knowing — especially for us Americans — that if they had not died…the world would be a much different place today.
So, as we draw closer to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year, let us pause. Let us reflect. Let us remember.
And, dear God in Heaven…let us learn.
— G.K. Masterson