Recent news that the last American veteran of World War I had died didn’t get a lot of attention because the war he fought in had long ago been forgotten by most Americans and is ignored by historians and the media. In my book, Why Bother, I wrote about it:
|||| How many school children are taught that, worldwide, wars in the past century killed over 100 million people? In World War I alone, the death toll was around ten million. Much of this, including the later Holocaust, was driven by a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, “attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive.” Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery — willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.
Thus, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Richard Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the internal bureaucratic logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. ||||
To me this is more than a history lesson. Death at an early age hung like a shroud over my family. My mother’s brother had died while serving in World War I. Trained as a flying observer at Fort Sill, he was killed by a shell as he went to help with the liaison between the airplanes and the artillery. His first cousin was an aviator with the famed Lafayette Escadrille. He lost his life while on a scouting mission over German territory just a few months before his cousin died in France.
Another uncle, married to my mother’s sister, came back from the war, where he had helped move dead bodies from the front. He never smiled again. Suffering from what we would call post traumatic stress syndrome, he committed suicide ten years later.
And one of my father’s brothers was lost near Lisbon while serving in WWI as an officer aboard Admiral William Halsey’s first command.
All this in a war that one hears little about anymore, yet in an important way would shape the next century of violence. As I noted:
|||| No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state. . .
Some of the most important lessons of the Holocaust are simply missed. Among these, as Richard Rubenstein has pointed out, is that it could only have been carried out by “an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy.”
In The Cunning of History, Rubenstein also finds uncomfortable parallels between the Nazis and their opponents. For example, in 1944 a Hungarian Jewish emissary meets with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and suggests that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne’s reply: “What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?” Writes Rubenstein: “The British government was by no means adverse to the ‘final solution’ as long as the Germans did most of the work.”
For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand “as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century.”
These tendencies were not alien to America. General Curtis LeMay ran the air war against both Japan and North Korea, became head of the sacrosanct Strategic Air Command, and was one of the military heroes of his time. Here are just a few of his accomplishments as reported by Richard Rhodes in the New Yorker:
– The destruction of nearly 17 square miles of Tokyo with the loss of at least 100,000 civilian lives.
– The destruction of 62 other Japanese cities. Only Hiroshima and Nagasaki were spared — reserved for their own special horror. In sum, more than a million Japanese civilians were killed. LeMay himself would admit years later, “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side.”
– The bombing of North Korean cities, dams, villages and rice paddies. Civilian deaths: more than two million.
In short, with the enthusiastic blessing of the American government, LeMay was directly responsible for the slaughter of about half as many civilians as died in the Holocaust. And LeMay had even grander schemes. His plan for defeating the Soviet Union included the obliteration of 70 Soviet cities in thirty days with thirty-three atomic bombs and the deaths of 2.7 million citizens. ||||
No time in history can match the century of mechanization of violence that began with World War I. Only when you add up all of China’s wars from the 8th to 19th century do you come up with anything comparable.
And like so many important things that made us what we are, we don’t even talk about it anymore. Except when you come from a family where so many uncles had died as part of the story.