Enlist

100 years ago, at the start of 1922, much of the world was still trying to process what had come to pass in the prior eight years: the mobilization to war of Europe, North America, some of the Middle East and Central America, and several nations of Asia, as well as many colonized peoples of South Asia and Africa; the harrowing of the European landscape along the war’s two primary fronts, especially the Western Front: the rise, fall, and redefinition of nation states, boundaries, and empires; the development and activation of killing technologies like the machine gun, the tank, the flame thrower, and poison gas; the slaughter and physical or psychological maiming of some 41 million people; the displacement of approximately 10 million people as refugees; in Armenia, the first major genocide of a genocidal century; and, just as combatants moved toward peace, the death of an estimated 50 million people worldwide in the brutal influenza pandemic of 1918-early 1920.

Kathe Kollwitz, Mourning Parents

How did the humans of that time experience and record their experiences in this fundamental moment of modernity? How does our own distance both enable and hamper our understanding of that experience, and what do we learn from The War to End All Wars?  I hope our semester is the beginning but not the end of your work considering those questions.

11 thoughts on “Enlist

  1. Our own distance from the war both helps and hampers our understanding of it. Because the war happened so long ago, we do not have personal connections to it and can therefore look at pieces objectively. Whether a piece depicting the horrors of war was written by an American, English, German, or Ottoman soldier, modern audiences can have equal sympathy for them as human beings. During or immediately following the war, English audiences probably would not have been able to fully appreciate a German work because they still viewed the Germans as the enemy who took their loved ones from them. War is the true enemy which plagued all human beings, but the pain was too fresh and too deep for everyone to acknowledge that even if that is what the writers conveyed. However, distance also greatly hinders our understanding because World War 1 does not hold the same magnitude today. Audiences who learned about other horrific conflicts like World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and wars in the Middle East do not understand the feelings of the men and women facing what they saw as “The War to End All Wars.” We cannot truly empathize with those feelings because sadly we are not as shocked by things like chemical warfare and global conflict. Footage of gruesome tragedies can be found on any given day due to modern technology; therefore, some works will not have the same profound impact now as they would to someone who lived during that time. However, whether the distance has an overall helpful impact or not, this war offers many lessons for any generation.

    • I really like the point you’re making about the Information Age, and also about the general process . That’s the literarily striking thing about World War One, right? – that the men entering it were setting out to fight in an entirely different kind of war than the one they ended up fighting in. Much as it’s in some way an impossible thought process, I did think a lot during Thursday’s class about how impossibly, horribly new what we were seeing was for so many of the writers we’re about to read, trying to put myself into the shoes of a person who wasn’t born at the very end of a century full of impossible horror (and right into a century full of yet more). I think it’s worth attempting for the rest of the class, trying as best we can to come at these readings with a real enduring awareness of the historical moment.

      I also think reading about something in a historic or academic context, or seeing pictures, isn’t really equivalent to reading a literary, narrativized portrayal of horrific events. It’s not by any means the same as being there, either, but I do think it’s transportive in its own way.

  2. Hi, it’s me! Ghost of the future of our class come back to haunt the blog posts of the past. (I accidentally got on a roll and now I’m procrastinating other work by stalking our blog.) Honestly, four months later, I still cannot answer your questions. Not in any concrete way, because as I’m sure you well know, it’s complicated. But I do want to say this – I think the distance between our hundred years is brought closer by our humanity. We will never be far from understanding the people that came before us, because we are just like them. They feel as we feel, and do their best as we do. When we read the lines that don’t explicitly say bullet or gun or shrapnel I think we can see most clearly how we are the same, but I think in the lines that do say bullet and gun and shrapnel we can see most clearly how our lives are not. There’s this post I saw once that goes like this – “life really is just like. you meet people and you love them and then you lose them and you never see them again. and it’s inevitable and it happens to everyone and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Ernest Hemingway wrote that. Margaret Postgate Cole wrote that. May Wedderburn Cannan wrote that. Katherine Porter wrote that. Wilfred Owen wrote that. And sure, our unique experiences complicate that. But it all comes down to that, and no matter how the changing landscape of the generations may make distant the messages of the past, we will always understand that. They wrote of love and loss as we write of love and loss today, and that’s not so hard to see yourself in. In any literature class I am in, I think about the humanity I read in our texts. So when you ask what I have learned from the war to end all wars, I will relay to you this – “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.”

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