Monday, February 14, 2005

The lamps are going out all over Europe...

...we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.

i'm sitting in the Reg at 4.13pm on a Sunday afternoon, it's drizzling pleasantly outside in a semi-warm sort of way that's totally alien to mid-february in Chicago, and i'm reading about death and destruction caused in World War I instead of sleeping in my nice comfy bed. sad, isn't it. the best sleeping weather, and i am in a semi-climate-controlled box (anyone who has worked in the Reg for an extended period of time knows that in winter, it goes from being too warm to freezing the longer you sit here; in spring it goes from pleasantly cool to freezing, necessitating the storage of a sweatshirt somewhere in here if you're not willing to lug it all over campus) with horrible florescent lighting reading a book by Spencer C. Turner titled The Great War 1914-1918.

to make matters worse, i'm 100 pages into the book and am convinced that the Germans should have won WWI. i mean, the accounts of Allied blunders -ahh! they scuttled their own warships! though the Germans did too- on both land and sea make me want to roll my eyes, throw up my hands, and silently consign Europe in the early twentieth century to German control. presumably the story improves later in the book -i am at 1915 right now: Stalemate and Trench Warfare, at which the Germans seem to excell- but up to this point i am being given very little reason to hope for an Allied victory, while simultaneously being convinced of the stunning capabilities of the German war machine. terrifying isn't it.

so many stirring speeches from the Allies that i remember from when i first read about WWI. Lord Grey's 'the lamps are going out all over Europe'; Churchill's 'we shall fight them...' -and the more i read about the war, the more i become confused about its very occurence. how did this war happen? never mind what the structural causes are, or the proximate causes (the death, for example, of Archduke Ferdinand as a convenient 'trolleycar') -how on earth did the world come to a point where millions of young men -boys, really- were convinced that they absolutely had to get into uniform, carry a rifle, hide in the trenches, and then at a signal from some commanding officer, go over the top into enemy fire, barbed wire, and three layers of trenches, with the highest likelihood that breaching the first set of barbed wire and trenches would merely mean being pinned between the first and second without a means to retreat -because a whole bunch more boys are charging up behind you?

and never mind that -what on earth made all these nation states decide that it was acceptable to keep sending a whole generation of young men to the Western Front to die, year after year, season after season? the more i think about the conduct of warfare in WWI the more impossible and bizarre it seems. the sheer level of carnage -'the godawful blood price', as JJM likes to say- just baffles my mind, accustomed as it is to modern weapons capabilities, technology, and strategic air strikes rather than godawful land wars of occupation. it just makes my brain hurt to think about the actual ground battles of WWI.

and the fact that there are rationalisations and explanations for all of my remarks above -nationalism, the professionalisation of the military, structural conditions which when meeting in a single moment in time meant catastrophe was inevitable (Grissom! Chaos Theory!)- doesn't make it make any more sense to me.


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