Friday, April 7, 2017

World War One

A hundred years ago yesterday, the U.S. declared war on the Kaiser's Germany and entered the Great War, later known as World War I, which had already raged for three bloody years.  German U-boats had unleashed unrestricted warfare on worldwide commercial shipping bound for the war zone, in a final desperate effort to starve England out of the war, and this violated one of President Wilson's grand Fourteen Points, Freedom of the Seas.  (Over There.)

The best account I have read of the confusing and senseless lengthy run-up to WWI is The Long Fuse by Laurence  Lafore.  The reverberations of the war lasted well into the last century, detailed well in Paul Fussell's book The Great War and Modern Memory; for instance think of the phrase going "over the top" (of your own trench in an assault).  (British troops go over the top at the Somme in 1916.)

WWI begat World War II twenty years after the Versailles Treaty, with its "war guilt" clause and its unsustainable, savage reparation payments requirements, that ended the Great War.  Nobody won that peace, as the follow-up war dwarfed the horrific casualties and devastation of the earlier war.  (A doughboy.)

My favorite novel of the war is One of Ours by Willa Cather, and the best popular history of the initiation of the war is The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, both of which won Pulitzer prizes.  As American missiles rain down on Syria, possibly striking some Russian or Iranian personnel, following a grisly gas attack by Syria on helpless civilians, I leave you with the close of the most popular novel of WWI, the ironically titled All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Remarque:

"He died in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long: his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come." (A soldier from the war, my grandfather.)

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