The war that ended the peace

Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery is one of the largest among scores of World War I cemeteries outside Ypres, Belgium.
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery is one of the largest among scores of World War I cemeteries outside Ypres, Belgium. MCT

In his poem, “Channel Firing,” written just months before the beginning of World War I, Thomas Hardy pictures the dead slumbering quietly in their graves in a peaceful British churchyard. Suddenly they’re awakened by the booming sound of naval gunfire out in the Channel. Their coffins shake and they sit upright, thinking that “Judgement-day” had arrived.

But God calls out to calm them: “No;/it’s gunnery practice out at sea/Just as before you went below;/the world is as it used to be;”

He goes on, resignedly: “All nations striving strong to make/Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters/They do no more for Christes sake/Than you who are helpless in such matters.”

The dead settle philosophically back into their tombs, with some of the skeletons shaking their bare skulls doubtfully. One muses aloud as they fall back asleep: “I wonder,/Will the world ever saner be … than when He sent us under/In our indifferent century!”

Literary historian Paul Fussell uses Hardy’s prescient poem to begin his book “The Great War and Modern Memory,” an important work that traces many current cultural attitudes back to World War I, 1914-1918.

Excepting the American Civil War, World War I began near the end of a comparatively peaceful century, a period of international calm punctuated by limited wars fought with muskets, swords and horses. The Great War, however, was fought on a massive scale with a level of mechanized brutality that shocked the world and altered its psyche in ways that persist to the present day.

For example, early in his book Fussell argues that every war is ironic but World War I was the most ironic of all, as implied by the stark contrast between its effect and its cause: the destruction of eight million lives sparked by the deaths of just two people, Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

This sort of irony encouraged skepticism about authority and a tendency to see the world in dichotomies, “us” versus “the other,” the soldier versus the homefront, the ordinary enlisted man versus his officers, innocence versus a cynical realism. These are truly modern dichotomies that manifest themselves in how we act and think and write and that had their origins, Fussell argues, in a war that ended almost a hundred years ago.

World War I also significantly undermined another dichotomy, the perception of the world as peaceful place where occasional wars occur. But given the bloody stalemate produced by trench warfare, some soldiers began to wonder if the Great War would ever end, whether peace would never arrive and whether warfare would become the “permanent condition of mankind.”

Fussell cites World War I memoirist Robert Graves: “We held two irreconcilable beliefs: that the war would never end and that we would win it.”

It’s hard to say which belief turned out to be true. Wednesday marks the anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in the Great War, but in many respects the War never ended, at all. The conditions of surrender made a second world war almost inevitable, and the haphazard, oblivious partition of the Middle East among the great powers points directly to our problems today.

In fact, after the Great War the world set upon a path of almost continual conflict that extends well beyond 1975, when Fussell’s book was published, leading through Korea, Vietnam, the proxy wars of the Cold War era, Iraq, all the way up to Oct. 30, when President Obama committed almost 50 ground troops to the murky conflict in Syria.

You don’t have to be a perceptive writer like Thomas Hardy to see where things are going. Even he couldn’t have imagined that our modern intractable conflicts – Israelis/Palestinians, Sunni/Shia, Islam/Radical Islam, East/West – would be played out against the backdrop of diminishing resources – the habitual cause of war – made only worse by climate change.

In fact, Nov. 11, 1918, didn’t mark the end of the Great War, at all; it marked the end of peace.

John M. Crisp, a columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email him at jcrisp@delmar.edu.