Not long ago, I wrote about the decimation of the US troops on D-Day and how that affected one small town not far from where we live. They lost so many boys (men, by then) that the powers that be decided to erect the national D-Day Memorial there. It’s in Bedford, VA, with its view of the mountains.
The last of the men of Bedford who came back from D-Day died a few years ago, but, ah, how our history has been entwined with death on distant shores ever since our founding!
As unprecedented as it was to lose so many men from one small town, it was not much different in kind from what we did to one another in our own Civil War. Perhaps what we did so efficiently in dealing out death in the 1860’s was simply the precursor to the profound generational black hole created by the absence of all those bright young men in England and France in World War I, the ones who never came back. The policy-makers and commanders of 1914 failed to look back to Gettysburg and the Bloody Angle to see what a hideous charnel house trench warfare would become, especially with machine guns and poison gas added to the mix.
I often think of all their unborn children, the would-have-been progeny of three wars who never breathed life because their would-be fathers were killed before the children could be born.
I wonder, would the world have been a sunnier place if those soldiers had somehow survived and had children? The regular joes, not called to war, would have married, found work and raised their families; their countries would not have been full of single women, and later, little old ladies - Miss Robinsons - who lived and died alone decades after their men who never came home.
And how about the lost literature, the music, and the many technological advances the gallant ones would have given us? To what extent is the coarsened culture we all live with due to those losses in America from 1861 to 1865, and the ones to follow in Europe from 1914 to 1918?
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By the 1930’s, there was no group of World War II poets. The ones from World War I had not reproduced themselves, had not been around to teach the younger ones.
We talk of those two wars as though they were separate events and could be treated individually. But when we do that, we fail to see how 1933 followed 1914, and how the ‘40s were simply a larger, meaner, more brutalized version of Europe’s bloody-mindedness a generation earlier, and America’s murderous resolution before that.
Had “the war of the brothers” in the US of the 1860’s been averted somehow, then perhaps in 1917 we could have been paying more attention to the events in Russia instead of being distracted by the up-close figure of muddy, bloody Death in the foreground of Europe.
The Civil War in America cheapened and coarsened life. “The war of the cousins” in 1914 set about to extinguish once again the best and the brightest - only this time on the European continent. Then World War II brought us all together to extinguish decency and hope on an even broader scale, bringing us finally to the War of the Unthinkable: mutual and instant annihilation for the next generation to chew on.
And now? Now we live with the random deaths by the dozens here and there -- at least until some stateless group sets off a nuclear blast. It is as though that frozen fear of the Cold War has melted and fragmented into a thousand million possible nightmares. Those nightmares are orchestrated by a Culture of Death eager to take as many as possible with them.
But way back then, the first event may have brought the second one into being. Certainly that Civil War impoverished America beyond counting. Having ingeniously mechanized broad scale death and brutality almost a century earlier in the US and brought it to maturity in 1914 on the European continent, was WWII simply the grown-up monster begat by those two generational killing sprees?
I had planned to celebrate our Fourth of July with more optimism than this. However, the rumination you are reading kind of wrote itself, and I’m sure many of our readers will take exception to my meanderings. However, the events on the ground right now, both in Europe and in the US, could not have occurred without the killings fields of the previous one hundred and fifty years.
All of these miseries came to a culmination for the US on 9/11/2001. There is a shadow on our flag, a stain that shows every time I see the Stars and Stripes. It is that shadow which fell across the page as I began to write about July 4th.
I remember when this was my favorite holiday.