Different trenches, same lessons

The war drums beating, the media serving as amplifier and echo chamber, my thoughts turned to a previous war – namely World War I. That one began as most begin, with flag waving and declarations of high national purpose. National leaders constructed a sense of inevitability, much as they are doing today.

Once the war started, however, the glory faded fast. The front hardened into opposing trenches, which became hellholes of mud, waste, and the remains of fallen comrades. In this miserable setting, something happened that defied all expectations. Far from their high commands, stuck in trenches within hailing distance of their foes, soldiers on both sides said, in effect, "What's the point?"

Informal truces arose during which the sides could clear their dead. Then came truces at meal times. During the first Christmas of the war, 1914, all yule broke loose.

As Stanley Weintraub recounts in his book, "Silent Night," troops gathered in no man's land between the trenches to exchange chocolates and sing Christmas carols. There even were soccer games with improvised balls. It was surreal and yet, in the circumstances, utterly sane.

The military brass were not pleased, however. They saw the truces as threats to discipline and fighting spirit, and took stern steps to quell these outbreaks of peace.

Ultimately they succeeded – if four years of gruesome combat, followed by a peace that led to an even larger war, can be called success.

The response of those high commands is of particular interest. The officers in World War I were stationed far behind the lines, and lived in relative ease.

The politicians were still further removed. War to them was a matter of management and bravado. They didn't have to sleep standing up in stinking muddy trenches. They didn't have to watch their friends fall at their sides.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that the most bellicose advocates of war today have never served on the battlefield, and in numerous cases have not served at all. The voices of caution, by contrast, tend to be those who have experienced war – Colin Powell, the secretary of state; Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, and Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts. Those beating the drums the loudest who do not know, from experience, where the parade leads.

Sometimes we have to fight. Even Gandhi acknowledged that. But people chastened by experience generally are not eager for war. They regard it rather as a last resort, to be entered with sadness and resolve rather than tub-thumping bravado.

Along with the officers, another group did not take part in the World War I Christmas truces. These were the artillery men who launched their salvos from far behind the lines. Like the top brass, the gunners did not experience the gore in the trenches, nor did they witness the impact of their shellings. Distance numbs the conscience; from far above Hiroshima the mushroom cloud looked almost splendid.

Increasingly that is the norm on the high-tech battlefield of today. In fact it is the norm for society today. In a multitude of ways we are removed from the consequences of our own actions. We don't see the slaughterhouses that produce our fast burgers, nor the sweatshops that stitch our jeans. We don't see the oil slicks and political deals involved in the production of our gasoline. Corporate executives with gigantic pay and retirement packages are the most removed of all.

In this, the rush to war is like the intransigence of our environmental pollution and of our waste. It is almost emblematic. People who are insulated from the consequences of their actions never grow and never learn. But the circle closes sooner or later. The parade goes where it's heading and we will soon find out where.

• Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, and a former Monitor staff writer.

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