Tyne Cot Cemetery, West-Flanders, Belgium.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
What if, from the beginning, everyone killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars had been buried in a single large cemetery easily accessible to the American public? Would it bring the fighting to a halt more quickly if we could see hundreds of thousands of tombstones, military and civilian, spreading hill after hill, field after field, across our landscape?
I found myself thinking about this recently while visiting the narrow strip of northern France and Belgium that has the densest concentration of young men's graves in the world. This is the old Western Front of the First World War. Today, it is the final resting place for several million soldiers. Nearly half their bodies, blown into unrecognizable fragments by some 700 million artillery and mortar shells fired here between 1914 and 1918, lie in unmarked graves; the remainder are in hundreds upon hundreds of military cemeteries, still carefully groomed and weeded, the orderly rows of headstones or crosses covering hillsides and meadows.
Stand on a hilltop in one of the sites of greatest slaughter—Ypres, the Somme, Verdun—and you can see up to half-a-dozen cemeteries, large and small, surrounding you. In just one, Tyn Cot in Belgium, there are nearly 12,000 British, Canadian, South African, Australian, New Zealander, and West Indian graves.
Every year, millions of people visit the Western Front's cemeteries and memorials, leaving behind flowers and photographs of long-dead relatives. The plaques and monuments are often subdued and remarkably unmartial. At least two of those memorials celebrate soldiers from both sides who emerged from the trenches and, without the permission of their top commanders, took part in the famous informal Christmas Truce of 1914, marked by soccer games in no-man's-land.
In a curious way, the death toll of that war almost a century gone, in which more than 100,000 Americans died, has become so much more visible than the deaths in our wars today. Is that why the First World War is almost always seen, unlike our present wars, not just as tragic, but as a murderous folly that swept away part of a generation and in every way remade the world for the worse?
To Paris—or Baghdad
For the last half-dozen years, I've been mentally living in that 1914-1918 world, writing a book about the war that killed some 20 million people, military and civilian, and left large parts of Europe in smoldering ruins. I've haunted battlefields and graveyards, asked a Belgian farmer if I could step inside a wartime concrete bunker that now houses his goats, and walked through reconstructed trenches and an underground tunnel which protected Canadian troops moving their ammunition to the front line.
In government archives, I've looked at laconic reports by officers who survived battles in which most of their troops died; I've listened to recordings of veterans and talked to a man whose labor-activist grandfather was court-martialed because he wrote a letter to the Daily Mail complaining that every British officer was assigned a private servant. In a heartbreakingly beautiful tree-shaded cemetery full of British soldiers mowed down with their commanding officer (as he had predicted they would be) by a single German machine gun on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, I found a comment in the visitors' book: "Never Again."
I can't help but wonder: Where are the public places for mourning the mounting toll of today's wars? Where is that feeling of never again?
The eerie thing about studying the First World War is the way you can't help but be reminded of today's headlines. Consider, for example, how it started. High officials of the rickety Austro-Hungarian Empire, frightened by ethnic nationalism among Serbs within its borders, wanted to dismember neighboring Serbia, whose very existence as an independent state they regarded as a threat. Austro-Hungarian military commanders had even drawn up invasion plans.
When a 20-year-old ethnic Serb fired two fatal shots at Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, those commanders had the perfect excuse to put their plans into action—even though the killer was an Austro-Hungarian citizen and there was no evidence Serbia's cabinet knew of his plot. Although the war quickly drew in many other countries, its first shots were fired by Austro-Hungarian gunboats on the Danube shelling Serbia.
The more I learned about the war's opening, the more I thought about the US invasion of Iraq. President George W. Bush and his key advisors had long hungered to dislodge Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. Like the archduke's assassination, the attacks of September 11, 2001, gave them the excuse they had been waiting for—even though there was no connection whatsoever between the hijackers, mainly Saudis, and Saddam Hussein's regime.
Other parallels between World War I and today's wars abound. You can see photographs from 1914 of German soldiers climbing into railway cars with "To Paris" jauntily chalked on their sides, and French soldiers boarding similar cars labeled "To Berlin."
"You will be home," Kaiser Wilhelm II confidently told his troops that August, "before the leaves have fallen from the trees." Doesn't that bring to mind Bush landing on an aircraft carrier in 2003 to declare, in front of a White House-produced banner reading "Mission Accomplished," that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended"? A trillion dollars and tens of thousands of lives later, whatever mission there may have been remains anything but accomplished. Similarly, in Afghanistan, where Washington expected (and thought it had achieved) the most rapid and decisive of victories, the US military remains mired in one of the longest wars in American history.