The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
What if, from the beginning, everyone killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars had been buried in a single large cemetery easily accessible to the American public? Would it bring the fighting to a halt more quickly if we could see hundreds of thousands of tombstones, military and civilian, spreading hill after hill, field after field, across our landscape?
I found myself thinking about this recently while visiting the narrow strip of northern France and Belgium that has the densest concentration of young men’s graves in the world. This is the old Western Front of the First World War. Today, it is the final resting place for several million soldiers. Nearly half their bodies, blown into unrecognizable fragments by some 700 million artillery and mortar shells fired here between 1914 and 1918, lie in unmarked graves; the remainder are in hundreds upon hundreds of military cemeteries, still carefully groomed and weeded, the orderly rows of headstones or crosses covering hillsides and meadows.
Stand on a hilltop in one of the sites of greatest slaughter — Ypres, the Somme, Verdun — and you can see up to half-a-dozen cemeteries, large and small, surrounding you. In just one, Tyn Cot in Belgium, there are nearly 12,000 British, Canadian, South African, Australian, New Zealander, and West Indian graves.
Every year, millions of people visit the Western Front’s cemeteries and memorials, leaving behind flowers and photographs of long-dead relatives. The plaques and monuments are often subdued and remarkably unmartial. At least two of those memorials celebrate soldiers from both sides who emerged from the trenches and, without the permission of their top commanders, took part in the famous informal Christmas Truce of 1914, marked by soccer games in no-man’s-land.
In a curious way, the death toll of that war almost a century gone, in which more than 100,000 Americans died, has become so much more visible than the deaths in our wars today. Is that why the First World War is almost always seen, unlike our present wars, not just as tragic, but as a murderous folly that swept away part of a generation and in every way remade the world for the worse?
To Paris — or Baghdad
For the last half-dozen years, I’ve been mentally living in that 1914-1918 world, writing a book about the war that killed some 20 million people, military and civilian, and left large parts of Europe in smoldering ruins. I’ve haunted battlefields and graveyards, asked a Belgian farmer if I could step inside a wartime concrete bunker that now houses his goats, and walked through reconstructed trenches and an underground tunnel which protected Canadian troops moving their ammunition to the front line.
In government archives, I’ve looked at laconic reports by officers who survived battles in which most of their troops died; I’ve listened to recordings of veterans and talked to a man whose labor-activist grandfather was court-martialed because he wrote a letter to the Daily Mail complaining that every British officer was assigned a private servant. In a heartbreakingly beautiful tree-shaded cemetery full of British soldiers mowed down with their commanding officer (as he had predicted they would be) by a single German machine gun on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, I found a comment in the visitors’ book: “Never Again.”