As the son of an American soldier, I moved all the time as a child. Seven of my first fifteen years of life were spent in France, two in Verdun. Verdun created the strongest impression on me of perhaps any place that I’ve ever lived. The World War I battlefields are just a few miles from the Desandrouins Barracks where I went to school for ninth and tenth grades. The ride from the town of Etain where we lived was twenty kilometers. From the bus that took us to and from school, we could see on the side of the road row after row of graves of soldiers killed in that battle, marked with white crosses for the French dead and black crosses for the Germans.
Visits to the battlefield with my father were a regular occurrence and Alistair Horne’s “The Price of Glory” was our principal guide to the events of 1916. Petain, Driant, von Falkenhayn, and Mangin were titanic figures from a legendary past. The calculus of death – 60 million shells fired on this battlefield in ten months, the slaughter of a million men – in the cataclysmic struggle over this small section of France shocked, sickened, and fascinated me.
The imagery used to describe the horrors of trench warfare conjured up the mechanization of death, a factory grinding soldiers into dust and mud, or a bestial living thing feeding on bleeding humanity like Kronos devouring his children.
I have spent a lifetime reading military history and spent much effort trying to understand the absolute futility of World War I, the “War to End all Wars”. Many books do a brilliant job describing a futility apparent to every person who participated in the conflict, but it never made sense until I read the brilliant “Prelude” of Jules Romain’s novel “Verdun”. Romain lays out simply and clearly how the apparent insanity of the war was the result of reasonably intelligent men taking reasonably intelligent steps to address the colossus of war that confronted them.
“Prelude” taught me that it is impossible to judge history, but only to try to understand and represent it. Men and women throughout time are confronted with forces that are beyond their control, and in trying to control them, they create forces that are just as dangerous and often completely self-destructive. When these forces overtake them, the politicians and military leaders resort to lies and propaganda. The First World War was presented as the “War to End all Wars”. The truth is different. Having cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the powers responsible concocted a fiction to justify the hideous slaughter – a slaughter that had developed from a conflict whose meager justifications had disappeared in waves of blood and gore.
I have written about the sack of Béziers in the 13th Century. This horrifying slaughter of innocents was conducted by the army under the titular control of one of the most holy men of his time, Arnaud Amalric, the abbot of Citeaux and head of the Cistercian order. It is likely that in today’s world he would have been tried as a war criminal for the actions of his soldiers.
People condemn the institutions for the faults of the people. So many people point to the abuses conducted in the name of religion and the church and censure both. But the horrors of World War I were the result of the application of the principals of rationalism to political and military practice. Are rationalism and the scientific process responsible for the war? Some people believe that they are. Or are humans responsible and it is just more convenient to blame the ideals?
Alain de Botton has written in his book “Religion for Atheists” that “Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes which atheists typically find it impossible to live with. We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.”
I would add that we also have no way to define ourselves or our place in the universe. Atheism, nihilism, and agnosticism offer us little. Atheism defines itself in the rejection of deities, and if there is one thing we know about life, it is that it is affirming. Agnosticism claims that the truth of religion and god can simply not be known which is a realistic stance. Nihilism purports that morality does not exist and existential nihilism states that life exists without meaning.
But people both seek and find meaning in their life. Whether that meaning is universal or eternal does not matter. It exists, and its very existence points to a larger meaning, like a shadow points to an object between the wall and the sun.