Monday, October 12, 2009

Lessons from World War I

Kansas City has the largest World War I memorial in the nation, Liberty Memorial, associated with the incredibly impressive National World War I Museum. It is a must-see for a visitor to Kansas City, and even worth a special trip. It is impossible to tour the museum and not be impressed by the enormity of this almost-forgotten war, the enormity of death and destruction, the virtual wiping out of an entire generation of young men in Europe, and the wanton disregard for people that led to an entirely unnecessary war being fought. The trenches must have been unbelievably awful; the image of men firing at each other across a no-man’s land difficult to envision.

WWI brought in its wake many writings that should be remembered and re-read, including the remarkable All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, and the heart-rending poems of the “World War I poets”, many of whom lost their lives, such as Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, John McCrae, Isaac Rosenberg and others. One cannot read these works without tears and regret and wondering what it was that led to, in England alone, the loss to death or wounds of 8% of its population. If you prefer your tears to musical accompaniment, I recommend “Battlefields of Green[1] by Scottish-Canadian singer John McDermott; while it includes lovely renditions of standards such as “Danny Boy”, most of the songs are about WWI, including a powerful performance of Australian Eric Bogle’s anti-anthem, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”.

World War I was not fought because Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, although that may have been a spark. What was it that led these countries of Europe, many of them (such as England and Germany) ruled by cousins, to enter this horrific conflagration? At its base it was a mercantile war, about whose merchants and manufacturers would control markets and be able to make money (and, of course, the war munitions makers, who did extremely well). For their economic self-interest, for the greater wealth of a small number of plutocrats, millions of young men were killed and wounded, Europe was decimated, and the seeds of WW II were sown. But boy, did those plutocrats do well! Not only did those in Europe do well, so did those in the US, which entered the war late, had (relatively) fewer casualties, and had no battles on its territory. The literature of this time is “The Great Gatsby”, the profligate 1920s, ending in the crash of ’29, the Great Depression, and the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe. (required reading is Howard Zinn's classic "People's History of the United States", Ch. 14, "War is the Health of the State". Interesting to note this in a "health" blog.)

Why talk about WWI now, here, in this blog? I suppose that I could tie it to the pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that continue to claim lives, and there would be validity to that, although now our wars are fought in other people’s countries, in the third world, and not by all of our children but predominantly working class children. However, I am more struck by the parallels to today in that policy continues to be made, and young lives sacrificed in the cause of increasing the “abundance of those who have much”. Not a year since the “crash” of 2008, our bankers and financiers are back to the same practices of excess in their personal lives and excessive risk-taking in their public actions that put the entire world economy into a recession and continues to cause amazing pain to millions. We are told that the economy is improving, which means that the bankers and financiers are doing well. We are told that the number of new job losses is less this month than last. Not that jobs are being created, understand, but that the rate of loss is less. There are 6 people for every available job. This is not improvement. This is bad. It is bad for the real people who live in this country. It is intolerable. We did not think that the Bush administration cared for regular people, but had hoped that the Obama administration did. No such luck. The predators are feasting over the spoils of the economy and the regular people still suffer.

People are angry. They are angry because they do not have jobs, because more jobs are being eliminated than created, because they do not see the government doing anything for them. On the heels of the Great Depression, FDR instituted the New Deal, including Social Security, banking reform, and a massive jobs program. On the heels of the current depression we bailed out the banks. Something is wrong with this picture.

In the 1930s, anger led to massive movements on the left and on the right. The right is always funded by the wealthy and led by ideologues, but requires regular people for a mass movement. These people are convinced that, somehow, their interests will be met by policies that are entirely directed at benefiting the wealthiest and the corporations they own; racism, jingoism, and mainly lying are popular and effective methods. The young Englishmen who died in WWI for the profits of the mercantile sector were sent to die for “King and country".

It is not only in war, and in the economy, that our government is doing the bidding of the super-rich and corporations and ignoring the people; it is happening on every front. Michael Moss, in the New York Times, on October 4, 2009, reported on the poisoning of our ground beef supply with pathogenic E. coli bacteria, E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection, because of inadequate testing by the slaughterhouses, grinders and processers, and government. The story of the effects on people were horrifying, but more horrifying is the quotation from “Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service” who “said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. ‘I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,’ Dr. Petersen said.” This does not help us to gain faith in our government and feel that, in Lincoln’s words, it is acting “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

World War I was an unmitigated disaster, fought for terrible reasons and leading to tremendous devastation. Well, maybe a little mitigated. A lot of arms manufacturers made a lot of money, and the corporations from the victorious companies gained markets. But it was, and is, inexcusable; and as inexcusable are the ways we continue to attract young men to die for markets, as they did in WWI. Wilfred Owen’s poem “Disabled”,

…One time he liked a blood- smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,
He thought he'd better join. - He wonders why.
Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts,
That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,

And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet.
He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.

Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,

And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole….

characterizes too many veterans today.

Yes, something is wrong. We need more than wars to send our young people to. We need jobs for them to do. And since the corporations we bail out won’t create them, we need the government to do it; a massive works program to rebuild our infrastructure for all of us. We need health care for all of us. We need a government that works for all of us. I hope, and I worry, and I fear that even under this President it will not.

[1] Hyperlink to one of many sites it can be purchased at.

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