President Trump is reliably reported to have referred to soldiers who have fallen in battle as “losers” and “suckers.” Supposedly, on November 10, 2018, he refused to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, outside Paris. It was raining and he feared his hair would get mussed. On hearing this—reported in the Atlantic magazine—I was totally surprised at the strength of my emotion. Anger, yes, but sadness too. I want to write about this. Not about Trump. Enough people are doing this already. But about why I feel so strongly.
In a way, you might think it odd. I was born in England, at the beginning of the Second World War, just at the time of the fall of France. The cemetery at Aisne-Marne is the final resting place of American marines who fell in battle in what was then called the Great War, and now the First World War. Why would it be things connected with that war that had such an emotional effect on me? In the 1950s and 60s, in Britain as well as America, so much popular culture was about the Second War. Movies for instance. The Dam Busters. The Longest Day. Why would it not be the Second war that affected me? There is reason enough for such an emotion. Those men who fell in the Battle of the Bulge, and at Iwo Jima.
That is misleading. Growing up in Britain in the 1940s, it was the Great War that defined us. My teachers in elementary school were single women whose boyfriends had fallen in Flanders. The books we read at school—Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon—related back to that war. As did the poetry, from Rupert Brooke—“If I should die think only this of me”—to Wilfred Owen—“Gas, GAS, quick boys.” In many front parlors was a picture of Uncle Fred, aged 18, so proud in his new uniform. Dead at Passchendaele.
And then, 1962, I went to Canada. To this day, for that country—as for Australia and New Zealand—it is the Great War that defines it. Huge numbers of its young men went to fight for the mother country, never to return, sleeping now forever in one of those vast cemeteries in Northern France. Everywhere there are reminders. For thirty-five years I walked to and from my university, passing the birthplace of Colonel John McCrae, author of the best-known poem of the war: “In Flanders fields the poppies grow/ Between the crosses, row on row.” Vimy Ridge, where the Canadians on Easter 1917 took a hitherto-impregnable escarpment, has the iconic status for that dominion as Gallipoli has for the two southern dominions, Australia and New Zealand. And then Newfoundland, that did not join Confederation until 1948. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1917, 780 men of the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top. Next morning, at rollcall, there were 68 men. July 1 is Canada Day. Except in Newfoundland. There it is Memorial Day.
What of those young men who died? Most of them weren’t obviously heroes, winners of the Victoria Cross (equivalent of the Medal of Honor). They were motivated by the call of king and country; but, at the crunch time, it was mainly a sense of not wanting to let down your buddies. “If he’s going over, then so am I.” They were heroes, nevertheless. Although it seems trite to say so, German expansionism—started by the unification of that country in 1871 and fueled by the militarism of the ruling Prussians—had to be stopped. It took two world wars finally to accomplish that. Those young men who died in Flanders gave their lives so that, eventually, people like me could live in peace and have full and happy lives.
I have just turned 80 and retired, after 55 wonderful years teaching philosophy in universities in Canada and the USA. As I came to the end of it all, and of course sensitized by the centenary events marking the Great War—1914-1918—I realized that I must do something. One thing, as a teacher, was to take a dozen American graduate students to the battle fields, spending a week in Ypres. None of them knew that twice as many young Americans died in that conflict as in the whole of the Vietnam war (120,000 vs 60,000).
A second thing, as a scholar, was to write a book on war. I work on the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin, so it was natural to write a book comparing Darwinian views on war to more conventional, Christian-influenced, views on war. Traditionally, the former are taken as somewhat bloodthirsty—“Nature, red in tooth and claw,” supporters of so-called “Social Darwinism.” Traditionally, the latter are taken as reluctant to go to war—Just War Theory hedges the times when conflict is allowable. As is so often the case, I found that popular conceptions are far from the whole story. Darwinians stress again and again that the reason why humans are so successful is that we are social, not by nature warlike. Christians to the contrary could sometimes give Attila the Hun a run for his money. Anglican bishops in the Great War* instructed: “kill Germans”; “kill the good as well as the bad”; “kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded.”
I am not sure in the end I came to any earth-shattering conclusions, but I was able to show that thinking in this century has already moved us well beyond both extremes. Finally, people of science and people of religion and other movements can speak constructively about war and its causes. That is not going at once to prevent it. But, as a philosophy teacher, I have always told my students that understanding is the first move to solving. If I have been able to do even the smallest thing towards an understanding of war, then will I have paid my debt to those young men who lie in Aisne-Marne and the other cemeteries of that and subsequent wars.
*Source: Marrin, A. 1974. The Last Crusade: The Church of England in the First World War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. P 175
Featured image: Photograph taken by Lizzie Ruse during a trip to Flanders, and used with permission.