Sunday, November 11, 2012

How soon we forget

French military cemetery at Douaumont (via Wikimedia).

I’ve already passed along this story on The ImpracticalCatholic.  But there’s another topic it fits, and “waste not, want not”:

The British Airways flight had just landed at Orly[1] and pulled up to the terminal.  Amidst the usual arrival bustle, an aged British gentleman was searching his carry-on bag for his passport.
A fellow passenger, a stern French woman, noticed his search, and asked, “Have you been to France before?”
The man, still searching, quietly replied, “I have.”
“Well, then,” the woman sniffed with stereotypical Gallic hauteur, “you should know to have your passport out and waiting, sir.”
“The last time I was here,” the Brit shrugged, “I didn't have to show my passport.”
“Impossible!” the woman snapped.  “You British have always had to show your passports to come in to France!”
Whereupon the Englishman stopped his search, stepped close to the lady, and whispered to her, “Well, when I landed on the beach in Normandy in June of 1944, I couldn’t find any f***ing Frenchman to show it to!”

Richard Collins of Linen on the Hedgerow said I’d “lightened Remembrance Sunday” for him.  For my American readers, Remembrance Sunday, observed the second Sunday of November, is in some ways a more solemn event than our Veteran’s Day.  Throughout the United Kingdom red poppies, in wreaths and baskets and single flowers, decorate every monument and marker raised to those who died in the two great world wars (and by extension all who died for King/Queen and Country).  The red poppy recalls the poem “In Flanders Field” by Col. John McCrae.

I may have lightened Richard’s mood, but my own sank.  Dear God.  What a waste of human life and treasure the First World War was.

From the end of 1914 to almost the end of 1918, idiot generals flung the pride and glory of European manhood at each other in massed attacks that modern artillery and machine guns had made obsolete, while the first weapon of mass destruction — gas — floated across the pulverized battle zones, leaving the unmasked to cough their life out in pieces.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!— An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.[2]

Wilfred Owen, the author of “Dulce et Decorum Est”, died a week before the madness ended.  By that time, the Hapsburg monarchy that had held together the Austro-Hungarian Empire was collapsing, Tsarist Russia had fallen apart in bloody revolt, the Ottoman Empire was no more, and over 17 million people had lost their lives (65 million, if you count the Spanish influenza epidemic that the war facilitated).  Not to mention that the victorious, vengeful leaders of the Triple Entente had teed up the Second World War by imposing on Germany a hefty, grasping bill of reparations and arms limitations.

If Christianity is dying in the West, with truth it can be said that it was poisoned not only by the rise of materialist socialism but also by the memories of men who hunched quivering in trenches and pillboxes as shells pounded their positions for literal days, who watched their comrades die by the hundreds and thousands in moonscaped hells like Verdun, Ypres and the Somme in the most useless and senseless conflict in recorded history.  Whoever said “There are no atheists in foxholes” had never lived in one for months, cursing the weather, the cooks, the enemy and the high command, isolated from any reason or purpose to his diabolical existence and unable to see any end to it other than his own death. 

When asked if he had been frightened, a young veteran infantry subaltern, C. S. Lewis, replied, “All the time; but I never sank so low as to pray.”  Eventually, Lewis learned how to pray, and subsequently taught others that it was not only sweet and fitting but reasonable — even rational — to do so.

My purpose here, though, is not to step through those arguments but to give honor to men whom we have in large measure forgotten.  For many Americans, the First World War is all rickety biplanes, clamorous ditties and dusty sepia photographs of men in tin hats, a war we joined just long enough to make the world safe for American exceptionalism, but which we have never mythologized to the extent that we did its sequel.

But even today, if you fly along the line of the Western Front, you can see the fields and woods outline the remnants and depressions of trenches and shell holes like ancient Gallic oppida or Roman forts.  The land remembers for ages; men forget in decades.

Semper Fi, my friends.

Dedicated to those of my family who have served, in both war and peace:

Franklin P. Layne, [Rank not available], USAR
Franklin  E. Layne, SSgt., USAF
Bernard Cronin, [RNA], USAR
Joseph P. Cronin, 1LT, USAR (KIA 22 Aug 1944)
James P. Walker, Pfc., USMCR
John P. Cronin, SPC4, USA
Theodore J. Layne, MSgt., USAF
Margaret A. Toth (Layne), CPT, USAR
Robert E. Layne, SPC4, USAR
Gregory Reese, [RNA], USAR
Kevin White, [RNA], USNR

[1] While Charles De Gaulle International takes the bulk of flights into France, Orly takes flights from within the EU.
[2] “How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.”