Sam Smith – This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One, the biggest war that most Americans never think about.
I’m one of the exceptions for two reasons. The first is that I came to comprehend an aspect of the conflict that is generally ignored. World War One helped introduce 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.
For example, 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 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 during this period: six miles. 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. It is no accident that Hitler and Lenin turned to the teachings of American technocratic apostle Frederick Winslow Taylor to carry out their evil or that the Nazis used IBM cards to help manage their death camps. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.
The second reason I can’t forget the war is that, while it occurred long before my birth, it caused death to hang like a shroud over my family. My mother’s brother was killed by a shell as he he served as liaison between airplanes and the artillery – part of a three year period in which my grandfather also lost his wife and sister.
My uncle’s first cousin was an aviator with the famed Lafayette Escadrille who lost his life a few months earlier while on a scouting mission over German territory. According to one account, “It was almost a year later that the remains of his charred Spad were located about three kilometers south of Montdidier, with a lone grave close by, marked with broken pieces of the plane.”The Escadrille consisted of American pilots who joined the French Army to fight against the Germans before the US entered the war. In all, 65 American pilots died while in the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps.
Another uncle whom I would never meet came back from the war and, according to one of his grandsons, never smiled again. He had been involved in moving dead bodies from the front. Suffering from what we would call post traumatic stress syndrome, he committed suicide ten years later.
Finally, one of my father’s brothers was lost near Lisbon while serving as an officer aboard Admiral William Halsey’s first command. The then Commander Halsey wrote my grandfather:
“Your son was in charge of the forecastle and with the men was busy all the way down the river securing things for sea. As we got to the entrance it was seen there was a large sea running, so we slowed barely to steerage way. We finally ordered all hands off the forecastle. Your son requested permission to stay and secure a hatch. As the safety of the vessel depended on this hatch being secured, permission was granted. . . Scarcely three minutes later a high white wall of water was seen bearing down on us. There was no time to yell more than ‘hold on’ when the sea hit us. When it cleared, even high up on the bridge where I was, I was gasping for breath from the effects of the water. Life buoys were let go and searchlights were turned on, but your son and young Arthur were never seen again.”
When history hits that close to home that often, it’s hard to ignore or forget