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Saturday, June 24

On the importance of never fully growing up

Someone just sent me this beautifully written piece by John Batchelor, which was published in last week's New York Sun newspaper (subscription only). The writing reminds me that it's not only American history John teaches on his radio show.

Pundita is a very grownup person, which means I am encrusted with cynicism. Yet sometimes I muster a grain of compassion for the young at heart, who tend to rail at homicide on a grand scale. The objective answer to John's angry question is that of course nothing has changed since World War One; it can't change because rationality and moral behavior are a never-ending process, not a sum.

But to toss a crumb of kindness, we're going to muddle through this century somehow, and the next and next.... As to how we're going to do this, in the same way humanity has gotten as far as we have: the genuinely tenacious ones among us never quit trying.
John Batchelor puts the World Cup in context

Observing these weeks of passion at the World Cup Championship in the German Republic is both a pleasure and a challenge.

The poet reminds us, "What was, is now."

When I read the exuberance of the cup wags who assure us that England is doomed, that Germany has cast aside its dogged dullness for a street game, that France is aged and Mexico is fresh and Brazil is magical and Italy is a starlet, I stare the harder and see these same judgments redirected nine decades from the green pitches of Germany to the forever haunted Flanders fields of Belgium.

It was the spring of 1915, and the British Empire and German Empire were digging in on the soggy farmland outside of the provincial town of Ypres. The war had ignited the previous summer amid charges of treachery and conspiracy between royal families who had spent the previous century kissing up to each other. The bloodletting of the early contest around Paris and in East Prussia had left both sides short of professionals and firepower, and now was the springtime of reinforcements.

The English called upon their colonials from South Asia, the South Pacific, the New World and Africa; and they were abetted by the polyglot French, Italian and Russian Empires. Meanwhile the Kaiser's staff drew upon the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the vast Ottoman Empire. Truly it was a world united by homicide. By late April a rainbow of hands was at work constructing the rudimentary trench lines from the North Sea. Near Ypres, the 1/5 battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, West Riding Division, hacked into the Argile de Flandres -- the impervious Flanders clay that caused the ridge-rippled terrain to turn into liquid mud in the rains. And
yet the spirits of the men who were actually under enemy fire remained strangely cocky and even World Cup jaunty.

"It is very exciting sport shooting at the Germans," wrote Company C to the folks back home at Barnsley, "but not very interesting when their snipers, who are deadly shots, send bullets whistling past our heads in rapid succession."

Most striking about this report is that it was written within days of the first-ever use of poison gas in a world war. On April 22, German artillery opposite Ypres fired 5730 cylinders of green-yellow chlorine gas that became a blue-white fog as it wafted westward over fire trenches where the unprotected French territorials fled in panic, vomiting and drowning in the discharge of their lungs. The Germans poured through and flanked the Canadian Division by nightfall. Irrationally brave, the English and Canadian regiments used rags soaked in urine as masks and counterattacked to hold the line.

The weapon of choice in the 20th century, WMD, changed nothing. Two years later, the frontlines were less than two kilometers away. The Flanders fields had been transformed by guns, gas, and blood into a planet of flooded craters and mud that moved with the vermin feeding on the remains.

And yet after the destruction of an entire generation of schoolboys, neither side had gained any advantage from Ypres to the Somme to Verdun --a worldwide scoreless draw that darkened the century.

Today, what presses me about the scenes of ecstatic Europeans and Asians and Africans and South Americans in the German stadiums is that these are the great-grandchildren of the men who survived Flanders fields and yet there is no guarantee anywhere in their faces that lessons have been learned. What gamely poured into the trenches now chants vulgarities as it pours into the stands. What sliced up the world with alliances now entangles it with associations and coalitions. The superstition, cultishness, sadism, and blind faith in revenge of the trenches have not vanished. Are they in hiding?

Where? At Baghdad? At Darfur? At Ituri? At Pyongyang?

"What was, is now."

If you shrug and say, it can't happen here, then you have already forgotten how heartbreakingly fast the glorious confidence of European civilization in 1914 was crushed into Siegfried Sassoon's awful epitaph of the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 that was named for the tiny Valley of the Passion in Flanders, Passchendaele.

"I died in Hell. (They called it Passchendaele.)"

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