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We are living moment by moment through the centennial of the war that neither ended all wars nor made the world safe for democracy–catchphrases so cheap and aims so lofty that even as the armistice was being signed on November 11, 1918, cynics had taken them up in sardonic parody. In September 1916, a century ago, the bloody battles of Verdun and the Somme continued on the Western Front. Specifically, September 25, a hundred years ago today, saw Lesboeufs and Morval captured; Combles hemmed in by Allies; French progress at Rancourt, Le Priez Farm and Fregicourt; Zeppelin raid by seven airships on England, casualties, 43 killed, 31 injured.
We don’t know these battles, are scarcely aware that over a million British, French, and German boys and men perished in them during that one year alone. Of course, these casualties took place on foreign soil, and the United States didn’t even enter the war until the spring of the following year. We also have other excuses: Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, the Tonkin Gulf, the World Trade Center. I am reminded of the gut-wrenching opening of Lisa Peterson’s play An Iliad: “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”
However, to ignore the anniversary of World War I is to deny its undeniable legacies and the banality with which we recite them: chemical warfare, trench warfare, shell shock, and the machines of war–tanks and submarines and airplanes. The atrocities of that war made it easy for the Western world to accept the meaninglessness inherent in Freudian psychoanalysis and Einsteinian relativity. The horrors in the trenches likewise spawned the Lost Generation and “The Wasteland” and Dr. T. J. Eckleberg. Continue reading . . .