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The Great War, Literature, and Us

08/04/2014 05:00 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014

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This morning, on the one hundred year anniversary of Britain's declaration of war against Germany and entry in what was to be known as The Great War, I attended a memorial Eucharist at Gladstone's Library in Hawarden, Wales. The library's warden, the Rev. Peter Francis, offered wartime verse in addition to the traditional liturgy. One selection was the beginning of a well-known poem by Wilfred Owen, who died scant weeks before the war ended in 1918:

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,--
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires."
("Anthem for Doomed Youth")

World War One seems light years away to most Americans now, even to those of us with some knowledge of history. Why should we care? "Only" 50,000 of the almost twenty million military and civilian deaths were Americans. It was not for us the cosmic disaster that it was to Britain, France, Germany, Belgium. Few Americans seem to know about these appalling casualties unless they have traveled abroad.

A few weeks ago I stood inside a memorial to the American dead, listed by division and battle in the cloister of the American Cathedral in Paris. Later that week, my wife and I drove through the Marne River valley and Champagne region, spotted with the white crosses of military graveyards from the bloody battles fought there. And just a few moments ago, I stood in front of the village monument to World War One just across the street from Gladstone's Library in Hawarden.

This monument, which has some sort of counterpart in virtually every village, town, and city across Europe, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand, lists the names of the dead--a shocking roll call that covers panel after panel, and describes the decimation of a generation--and suggests the desolation of all those who loved or depended upon them.

We live in the world the Great War created. Even though we may not know the details of the major battles and most of us couldn't tell you why the war began, we are still dealing with its fallout. Not only did it lead directly into World War Two (whose effects we can more easily discern), it created unstable nation-states, inserted a Jewish nation into Palestine, introduced full war in which civilian populaces were at risk and modern weapons were widespread, leading to wholesale slaughter.

We live in a world we don't understand, in which wars are fought--or not fought--for reasons that seem to be beyond our comprehension. But we are simple if we believe our ancestors lived in simpler times. Even during the Great War, participants had doubts about what they were doing. Afterwards, many agreed with the assessment that the war was fought, as Britain's last surviving veteran, Harry Patch put it, "For what? For nothing."

We still live in a world where people seem to fight or die for nothing; that is a substantial part of the Great War's bequest to us. Why did almost 300 passengers die over the Ukraine last month? How can we explain why terror and brutality win the day in Gaza?

But thankfully, the Great War also offers an example that is life-giving. Wilfred Owen's poem shows us one of the most important tasks of the author, then and now, trying to translate dramatic experiences and to make some meaning out of them. In many cases, he and the writers of his age echoed Harry Patch, concluding in their poems and stories that one death was too many. Hemingway's World War One ambulance driver Frederic Henry decides in A Farewell to Arms that the old verities are dead. Glory? Honor? Courage? Just words, none of which mean anything in response to the slaughter of a generation.

The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine, opens his eyes to discover "all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken." What is possible after that?

In "Dulce et Decorum Est," another Wilfred Owen poem read at the close of the memorial Eucharist, the speaker describes watching a soldier die in agony after inhaling poison gas, and concludes that no one who saw such a thing would ever again say it was noble to give your life for your native land. (The poem's title comes from an epigram by Horace: "It is sweet and right to die for your country.")

We live in the world the Great War made. In their attempts to tell the truth about their war and its aftermath, World War One writers preview the attempts offered by contemporary artists to seek meaning in our own meaningless conflicts. Like the writers of the Great War, our storytellers show how easy it is for combatants and for those on the home front to lapse into cynicism or hedonism as a response to horror.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried laments the difficulty of telling a true war story, and shows how grunts in Vietnam learn quickly that it's dangerous to feel too deeply, that if you can get high or lose yourself in some other way (fantasy, sensation, action) you'll be better off. When a squadmate, Chet Lemon, gets blown apart by a mine, the men push it away with humor, as the narrator "Tim O'Brien" notes: "What wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing "Lemon Tree" as we threw down the parts."

In response to our more recent horrors, Ben Fountain dramatizes in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk our nation's long avoidance of the reality of war in Iraq. The story he proffers offers the zenith of hedonism: a squad of "heroes" on temporary leave from combat are propelled into the wretched excess of a Dallas Cowboys football game at Thanksgiving, surrounded by cheerleaders and food and drink, cast in a halftime extravaganza in which they are the uncomfortable stars.

Maybe it will always be easier to avoid than to confront the reality that men and women are killing and dying. In Redeployment, released earlier this year, Phil Klay writes in the voice of a just-returned vet about how we tend to deal with the things that go bump in the night by not dealing with them. "We took my combat pay and did a lot of shopping. Which is how America fights back against the terrorists."

In all this, we can walk a straight line between The Great War--and the literature of the Great War--and ourselves. To imagine that the lives of men and women a hundred years past were simpler, or that these men and women from a hundred years ago are somehow alien, is to ignore our common stories and lose the lessons they all have to offer.

War is hell. Most are not worth the loss of one life. And yet, we will go on, fighting, dying, being killed. And for what?

Those bells ringing their lament today across the Welsh countryside? They also ring for us.