Monday, September 15, 2014

The outbreak of World War I

One of my distractions while running lately has been the World War I episodes of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. Two-and-a-half episodes in, Carlin has barely reached the Battle of the Marne, but that's a good thing: the months leading up to and just after the outbreak of the war are the most complicated and important, and he's giving them their due, doing a good job of showing how reasonably sane people--products of their time, but not evil or ill-meaning--boxed themselves in so thoroughly that war became unavoidable, and almost instantly assumed a scope and deadliness until then unimaginable. The casualty figures from the first few months of the war are still breathtaking; to think that any nation could absorb deaths in that quantity and continue to fight is almost unfathomable today. (In fact, I take it as one of the few unquestionable signs of legitimate human progress that the nations of the West are, a century later, much less willing to countenance widespread bloodshed in war. For all the indefatigable bellicosity of our hawks, life is not quite so recklessly thrown away now as it was then.)

The greatest strength of Carlin's podcast is its conversational quality. Though it's hard to imagine the whole three-plus hours of each episode isn't fairly closely scripted, the effect is not of something read, like an audiobook, or even a delivery of prepared notes, like a lecture, but of someone telling you something. It's thus perfect for a long drive or a long run, engaging moment to moment, yet not so intense as to be thrown wholly off course when you have to look up to leap out of the way of a snarling chipugpug, or brake to avoid one of those hideous three-wheeled motorcycles.

The other great strength of the podcast is that Carlin loads it up with direct quotation. We hear firsthand accounts from soldiers, diplomats, generals, journalists, and more, and they help immensely in bringing immediacy and uncertainty to events that we can't avoid seeing at least to some extent as distant and predetermined. The most striking, for me, in the first episode was a story filed for Scribner's by America's greatest reporter of WWI, Richard Harding Davis. Davis was on the scene as the Germans marched into neutral Belgium, and he filed a long, richly descriptive report:
At eleven o'clock, down the Boulevard Waterloo came the advance-guard of the German army. It consisted of three men, a captain and two privates on bicycles. Behind them, so close upon each other that to cross from one sidewalk to the other was not possible, came the Uhlans, infantry, and the guns. For two hours I watched them and then, bored with the monotony of it, returned to the hotel. After an hour, from beneath my window, I still could hear them; another hour and another went by. They still were passing. Boredom gave way to wonder. The thing fascinated you against your will, dragged you back to the sidewalk and held you there open-eyed. No longer was it regiments of men marching, but something uncanny, inhuman; a force of nature like a landslide, a tidal wave, or lava sweeping down a mountain. It was not of this earth, but mysterious, ghostlike.
What fascinates me in that passage is that Davis compares the German army to natural forces. We're so used to explaining the horrors of World War I through the lens of runaway technology--an ability to kill that vastly outstripped our ability to understand, let alone harness or defend against it--that to hear the vast extent of the German army (bigger, in tiny Belgium alone, than Napoleon's Grande Armee as it entered Russia) called uncanny . . . yet compared not to a machine, but to natural forces. But then he turns. By the end of the third day, he's shifted metaphors. Overnight, the Germans were like "the tumult of a river when it races between the cliffs of a canyon," but by the fourth day, they have become
a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steamroller.
They are "a cataract of molten lead," their "perfect unison" the "blows from giant pile-drivers." Then,
When at night for an instant the machine halted, the silence awoke you, as at sea you wake when the screw stops.
It is no longer any sort of natural force--for there is a sense in which we can accept power and destruction in that form, even if we cannot understand it. This, it has become clear, is some other order of thing entirely.

But in his closing, Davis finds a way to bring the two metaphors together. This "monstrous engine,"
is, perhaps, the most efficient organization of modern times; and its purpose only is death. Those who cast it loose upon Europe are military-mad. . . . And like Frankenstein's monster, this monster, to which they gave life, may turn on them and rend them.
And that does seem like the perfect metaphor for what World War I unleashed: a harnessing of technology, with little thought to its ends, looses a force that can no longer be controlled, and that wreaks havoc wherever it roams. A century later, we're still sorting through the ashes it left behind.

No comments:

Post a Comment