11 November 2009

Armistice Day

On this date in 1918, at precisely eleven a.m., the guns in Europe and across the world fell silent, ending the armed hostilities of the Great War, humanity's first major industial war and one of unimaginable horror. It was called the Great War out of deference to the death and destruction in caused: hundreds of miles of French countryside were turned into deep and muddy trenches where millions of young men lived with decaying bodies and engorged rats that thrived on such decay. Beyond the trenches, more countryside was laid waste to by artillery: whole towns vanished -- and this is only in Europe. No war more terrible could be imagined, and yet humanity managed to one-up itself twenty years in terms of financial cost, inhumanity, and lives lost.

After that point, the Great War became known as "World War I', and the history books of my youth painted it as merely the introduction to World War 2, the "big one". There's a notable dichomy between the two wars, at least for me: the former is war at its basest and least noble, while the latter is war at its most romanticized. I do not know of any other war in history where the two sides have so clearly been sorted into "Good" and "Evil" categories. The second war is what Americans seem to think of when they think of war -- glory, goodness, self-sacrifice, and honor.

I wish Americans would think of the Great War when they thought of war. Regardless of the degree to which you may romanticize the second war or not, it is damned impossible for anyone to romantcize the first, except out of utter ignorance to its reality. Perhaps if your knowledge was limited to movies like Flyboys, you might think it a lark -- but otherwise, the cold reality is unavoidable.  The Great War is war in its essence: utterly miserable and utterly futile. Those millions of deaths and all that misery endured accomplished virtually nothing, failing to teach even the lesson that nationalism and dreams of glory were furtile. That had to wait twenty years, and even then the lesson was not wholly learned. I think humanity would cease to war if we kept the Great War in our minds -- for once wars are stripped of their pretty ribbons and creative retellings, they all consist of people killing one another in horiffic ways, unable to see the humanity they're butchering behind ideal-tinted glasses.

Three years ago, I stumbled upon the song "Green Fields of France" in a Humanist magazine. I later heard it performed, and it haunts me from time to time -- and especially today.

Well, how do you do, Private William McBride,
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they Beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly?
Did the rifles fir o'er you as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

The sun's shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

And I can't help but wonder, no Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you "The Cause?"
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

10 November 2009

Philosophy Bites

I was recently introduced to the podcast "Philosophy Bites", a series of short interviews with modern philosophers on a variety of subjects, and am beginning to explore their archived contents. There's at least one podcast with humanism as its subject, and  British humanist A.C. Grayling is one name I've recognized. I haven't sampled enough of the content to comment on it, but I have enjoyed those interviews I've listened to so far. One obvious reccommendation is Alain de Botton: I've read a couple of his works and have found them intellectually stimulating.