In 2003 my brothers, father and I began a series of tromps around western Europe. The excuse was that my brothers were both living in Europe at the time. My middle brother was planting a church in Poitiers in France and my little brother’s MASH unit was attached to the 3rd Infantry Division stationed at the time in Wurzburg, Germany. But while visiting them was the excuse, the real reason was to spend time together and to try to get to know one another again. We had drifted apart over the years, and after the the death of our mother, we realized that without her to keep us joined as a family, we were likely to drift further.
My grandfather served in World War 1 and my uncles in World War 2. (My father is a Korean War vet.) Grandpa had never really talked about what he had experienced in France. He had graduated from Yale with a degree in civil engineering, joined the army and served as a captain in the Field Artillery. We did think we remembered him saying that he had been at Verdun at one point during his service. We know he had been gassed – and the mustard gas had left him with only partial lung capacity for the rest of his life. My most common memory of him as a child was of him sitting in his sunlit study, filled with his elephant collection (he was committed Republican) and breathing through a rubber mask attached to an oxygen tank.
We decided to see if we could retrace the steps of his time in France during one of our weeks in Europe. My youngest brother borrowed an Army history of WW 1 from the base library and we used it to try to determine where he had been. Looking at the Infantry division patches, we recognized the patch of the 79th Infantry Division which had been on his uniforms. We think we recalled that his artillery unit had been attached to the 313th battalion. Reading the history, it appeared that his unit had been instrumental in the taking of Mount Falcon, a battle which was to some degree the turning point of the Battle of Verdun – one of the, if not *the* bloodiest battle of WW 1.
So we drove to Verdun and found our way to Mount Falcon. There were any number of monuments along the road to the 79th ID and to the 313th. We even found a plaque on the top of Mount Falcon that talked about the exploits there of the 313th along with a young colonel named George Patton.
And then we came across the cemeteries. I’d heard of the military cemeteries of Europe, but I never really had understood how big they were. There were acres and acres and acres of crosses marking the bodies of people killed, ground up in the brutal trench warfare stretching from one horizon to another. It was quite breathtaking. And quite heartbreaking. You can see a photo meditation I created of the experience linked at the upper left of this blog.
I grew up near Gettysburg. I know what battlefield cemeteries look like. I thought I was prepared for the experience. I wasn’t.
The experience of *those* cemeteries, many of them, filled with American, British, French and German war dead still haunts me today.
World War One never really needed to be fought. Some historians argue that the war ultimately stemmed from a German mis-reading of French intentions. And the German war plans were so complicated that once the mobilization order was given, there was no way to stand down. And that once the Germans realized they couldn’t easily win, they decided to fight a war of attrition, betting that they countryman could accept horrific causalities to a much greater extent than the French or the British. They were wrong, tragically wrong.
The whole generation of European young were ground up between the teeth of two war machines who couldn’t find a way to stand down. People who refused to surrender. People who thought the answer to violence was more violence, and the winning strategy was to take the violence to a level that the enemy simply could not countenance.
It would be a lovely thing to believe that such a thing couldn’t happen today. But only a fool would think such a thing.
It seems to me that the Church has to do everything in its power to make sure though that it doesn’t. I’m not a pacifist per se, but I have a growing sympathy for their stance. Perhaps it’s time for me to get out my copies of Hauerwas’ and Yoder’s writing and spend some time with them again.
Rene Girard suggests that the only way to break out of the cycle of violence, whether obvious or hidden, is to reorient our desires away from earthly things and toward Christ. It’s in the imitation of Christ and not each other that we have the best chance to fully enter into the Shaloam of the Kingdom of God.
On this Memorial Day, as we remember those who have served this country, and especially those who have died in its service, let us do what we can to make their sacrifice on the altars of war an historical event and not a current affair.