“In Flanders Field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarcely heard amid the guns below.”
—from “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae
One hundred years ago today, Germans and Frenchmen and Brits and Austrians and I-don’t-know-who-all were butting heads near the Marne River east of Paris. It was the first battle of the First World War, and it was a bad one. Estimates range up to 300,000 casualties over the three days it lasted. Somebody won, or think they won, but it hardly matters now which side that was. It seems to me that any particular battle has as little to do with who eventually wins the war as any particular word has to do with how a poem eventually reads, or any particular pigment has to do with how the canvas looks when it’s finished. It seems to me, the whole history of battles is only a filing system of keeping track of who got killed, and where.
It seems to me, in fact, that we can’t even be sure 100 years later who exactly won the damn war. We know who surrendered to whom, and we know which countries suffered the most in the immediate aftermath of the war. But were we to consider that war—in its entirety, from the terrible Battle of the Marne to the armistice four years later—as only the first segment of an epic conflict that still rages on, who could feel confident they know how it will ever be resolved? Or indeed, if
it will ever be resolved? And if it is, who will be called the winners?
All we can know for certain is that a century later, owing in such a large part to World War I, we now have tanks, aerial warfare, gas warfare, attack submarines, the world’s first pandemic (the Spanish flu), a Middle East still so turmoiled that there is no end in sight, a Russia that is still trying to figure out what it is, disaffected losers who turned into Nazis, disillusioned winners who, man per man, were every bit as damaged as the losers, World War II, the Cold War, nuclear warfare, no distinction between military targets and civilian targets, genocide as a political strategy, America’s continuing role as the country all the others turn to when they can’t get their problems solved on their own, an absurd attitude that military solutions are the best solutions, and uncountable dead.
Perhaps World War I truly was the war to end all wars, only it’s still going.
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.”