Ninety years ago, the horrifying and disastrous First World War came to an end. Prophets and philosophers in the West knew that the modern industrial age was not the utopian world for which progressive men hoped, but the “Great War” showed everyone the frightful possibilities of man’s new power, arrogance, and forgetfulness of past wisdom. Our collective memory of the war fades, but flickers remain in commemorations of Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, and, here in the United States, Veterans Day, when we remember all those who served in the armed forces.
The seeds to the First World War go back to Adam, of course, and the war itself lies at a particularly dark nexus in world history. For the war set in motion the apocalyptic nightmare of the twentieth century wherein monarchies were overthrown, aristocracies and ancient traditions were repudiated, cities were destroyed, empires crumbled, totalitarianism began its dreadful march, theomachy was unleashed, and the West chose death over life in its greed for world domination. The fallout of the damned war continues to plague us . . . as the last embers of Western civilization currently fade into history. If only Europe’s leaders ninety-four years ago could have foreseen what they have wrought—Europe weeping for her children, because they are not.
War is hell, but it strangely allows us to see some of the best aspects of human nature. There is nothing nobler or more iconic of God than self-sacrificial love, and war provides ample opportunities for such heroic actions.
Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
This aspect of war as a challenge for greatness supplies the opinion of war’s glory. What justifies man’s existence—that greatness in certain human beings—flourishes in adversity, but slothful and lazy men become perversely ugly in times of comfort and peace. Hobbes and Nietzsche are correct when they praise war for its positive effects on human beings; suffering often prunes human beings into better specimens. As Aristotle noted millennia ago, war provides the ultimate test for human excellence, wherein men learn of their own and of their fellows’ virtue, where valor, courage, and self-sacrifice remind human beings that perhaps they do deserve to survive and that they have the power to do so. Not just soldiers but the civilian population grows in its worth if it survives a struggle nobly. A seiged city that comes through conflict victorious and without shame is a better city for the pain and suffering that it overcame. Nietzsche noted well that man learns through pain.
Yet, consider the demonic cost of such spiritual growth—a generation lost and more marred. Some survivors are better with their scars, but others are broken and many are dead. It would be somewhat comforting to think that only the weak and the cowardly die in war—that war acts in some Darwinian manner to cull the herd of its less desirable stock. Yet, this is not so . . . artillery rains down upon the best and the bravest as upon the wicked and the cowardly. I think of Rhett Butler’s response to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind: “I’m angry. Waste always makes me angry, and that’s what all this is, sheer waste,” or Sherman’s “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” So many lost—and so many young, promising ones lost, often the kind of people that you want to constitute a society—who perished before their time. Or so it seems to the ones who remain. The glory of virtue is its own reward; a moment worth a lifetime is for the one who conquers his lesser self and shines forth in noble acts; the songs sung of the dead and heroic deeds recounted for generations may gain a certain type of immortality for the valiant—these are considerable goods, but they do not fall to the grieving families except as bittersweet consolation in pride. How many widows of the men in Arlington would rather have their husbands back alive and victorious rather than dead and heroically commemorated. The Spartan women may have said to their husbands to return with their shields or on them, but I suspect that even the most Spartan wife’s heart hoped for the former.
So, this is quite an irony of human existence—war makes us better and worse. I suppose that the ideal situation would be where a society cultivates the virtues that the dangers of war make necessary for human affairs but then never actually has to use them. Of course, human beings come to ignore the perceived needless, and reminders have to come from time to time for our own good. Regardless, I do not think that war itself is avoidable, given the wickedness, vulnerability, misunderstanding, and greed of men. Sometimes, violence must answer violence. Nonetheless, even given its salubrious effects, war is always tragic—good men die fighting and innocent civilians always suffer collateral damage. Not least among their sufferings is their beloved dead who never make it home.
For a bleak depiction of World War I, I recommend the Australian film Gallipoli. If you have never seen it, do not watch this closing scene but borrow the whole movie:
What a lot that we have made for ourselves, both to our shame and to our credit.
Memory eternal to the dead of war! It is meet and right to honor them, to miss them, and to be grateful for their sacrifice.