Blindness, War & History

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(this essay was originally published in the Fall, 2014 issue of the Concho River Review. Since it is no longer available for purchase, I will post the essay here) 

when you kill another
honor him with your tears
when the battle is won
treat it as a wake
—Tao Te Ching 31, tr. Red Pine


1. Blindness

I often wondered why the poet T. S. Eliot said, in the beginning of The Waste Land, that April was the “cruellest month.” It seemed the heart of winter would fit better, when the world is actually dying and darkening, rather than spring, when youth and growth rise above death.

Trench ratsThen I remembered that the poem was written in the aftermath of World War I, and that Eliot dedicated his first book of poetry to a friend and soldier, Jean Verdenal, who was killed at the Dardanelles. Eliot’s brother-in-law, Maurice Haigh-Wood, also served in the war, and some of the images from The Waste Land are taken from his experiences—the lines about being “in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones”[1] refer to the enormous rats encountered in the trenches. [2]

And even if Eliot did not specifically mean this, I was reminded that, for most of history, spring has traditionally been the start of the military campaigning season (the month of March, after all, was named for Mars, the Roman god of war). And as the campaign coincided with the agricultural round from planting to harvesting (spring to fall), it seems simple enough to say that the soldier knows why April might be cruel, since for many of them it is the time when youth and growth, for all their strength, begin their advance towards death.


War always brings inevitability about it, as if it could have happened no other way, as if it were out of our hands, the ones who are dying or who knew the dead. Perhaps this is the only way we can justify the deaths of so many young—that is, by immediately making it holy and solemn somehow, tragic and unavoidable.

While I admit that some war is clearly necessary, to say that most wars are actually avoidable, or to point out the millions who died for ground that was just lost, retaken, and lost again, seems to suggest that young men (and civilians of all ages) died in that most horrible way, “in vain.” This is a conclusion many of us cannot accept since, despite how our culture reflects us, we really do cherish human life, and do cherish and love those closest to us, and do pity the sufferings even of strangers.

Meaning often comes from making things more honorable than they actually are, and in the case of war, it is perhaps just less emotionally destroying to imagine our soldiers died in a conflict which was inevitable, rather than spend our lives enraged at our leaders or generals for killing our friends for nothing, or enraged at ourselves or our countries, for making poison out of patriotism.


Walter BurkertWalter Burkert, in his book about ancient Greek sacrificial ritual, writes that the burial and monumentalizing of a country’s dead soldiers are “almost as important as the battle itself…. It almost seems as though the aim of war is to gather dead warriors…. Each generation has the right and the obligation to have its war.” [3]

The Judge, a character in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian remarks that, “It makes no difference what men think of war…. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” [4]

Shelby FooteAnd yet Shelby Foote, himself a veteran of World War II, spoke another way when he said of the American Civil War, “We think that we are a wholly superior people—[but] if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.” [5]

Rather, it’s just human to do it. And this is another option: thanks to its outcome in the abolition of slavery, the Civil War seems a justified war if there ever was one; and yet what shame those who lived through it must have felt at all the waste (and what shame many feel now), noting the justness of the conflict but the reality that it could have been avoided had not misguided religious and political notions (as well as economic and social ambitions) combined with racism to justify slavery in the first place.

On some level, even the most justified wars need never have happened: those men and boys and women and children need never have died. In the case of World War I, the combined fifteen million army and civilian deaths merely died so that, come the next generation, around fifty million more could be killed in World War II. [6]

War is never just the one thing we wish it were.



T. S. Eliot’s brother-in-law wrote a letter in 1917 about life in the trenches. In it, he mentions the blindness of those who have not been to war and never will be, and the “practical impossibility of the uninitiated to realize or imagine even dimly the actual conditions of war. And a man who has been through it and seen and taken part in the unspeakable tragedies that are the ordinary routine, feels that he has something, possesses something, which others can never possess.” [7] As generations of returning soldiers find out, while they are gifted with many theatrical thanks and gratitude—all of which may be sincere—in many ways, when in the company of the general public, they are entirely alone.



There’s two kinds of blindness here: the blindness of those who can only justify the deaths of its young soldiers by enthusiastically and unswervingly supporting the war which took them and thereby making it an inevitable, almost necessary ritual; and then the blindness of those who have never been to war and, as Maurice Haigh-Wood wrote, can somehow talk “the glib commonplaces about war” and distribute “cheap sympathy to its victims.” [8]

I have never been to war, and so I hope not to write about its horrors glibly or cheaply. There is no point being merely “pro-war” or “anti-war,” only in taking war seriously, and being honest about it. There is no use trying to imagine the end of war, or imagining a more civilized or less brutal war. War is hell, and it ought to be, and it should come as no surprise that the things human beings do to each other yield the inferno that war is.


2. War

Reflecting on these kinds of blindness reminded me of two instances where the weapons of war caused the literal blindness of its combatants, in battles which took place in Europe nearly nine hundred years apart.


The first was the Battle of Kleidion, which took place on July 29, 1014, between the armies of the Bulgarian and Byzantine Empires.

Back in 493, the Bulgars were just a new people on the Byzantine frontier, and they are said to have invaded Thrace that year. (Thrace nowadays occupies northeastern Greece, southern Bulgaria, and northwestern Turkey). For the next five hundred years, even as they became an empire in their own right, this more or less remained their pattern: raiding from their homes just north and south of the Danube down to the area of Thrace, and sometimes further south and west into Greece in the areas of Macedonia, Thessaly, and Illyricum. In 540, some raiders made it as far south as the Hellespont (now called the Dardanelles, where Eliot’s friend Jean Verdenal perished) and could have crossed over into Anatolia, but captives and goods were all they came for. When they nearly reached Constantinople in the 550s, the Emperor Justinian merely had to buy them off with gold to make them leave.

BulgarsFrom here until 1014, the Bulgars and Byzantines joined with any number of the peoples coalescing in and around the Balkans in the hopes of finally defeating the other, or in occasionally joining forces against a common enemy. These peoples include the Huns, Avars, Slavs, Moravians, Magyars, Serbs, Croats, Pechenegs, and Russians. Once, in the late 900s, the co-Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas II paid the Russians to attack the Bulgarians, but when the Russians succeeded too well and became a threat, he quickly made an alliance with the Bulgarians. So it goes. The two sides occasionally met in a large battle, but in the long run these were more colorful than decisive: in 811, the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I was killed in battle, and his skull, famously, was made into a drinking bowl for the Bulgar Khan, Krum.

During this time, the Byzantine emperors (and occasional empresses) had their hands full warring with the Muslim Caliphates—from the Sassanids to Umayyids to Abbasids—for control of much of what encompasses the Middle East and Turkey and North Africa today; and, in the end, they split religiously and politically from the Roman west in its various forms, whether the Carolingian, Frankish, or Holy Roman Empires. And very often, the Bulgars took advantage of the Byzantine’s major campaigns with these other enemies to raid, or to sue for a peace more advantageous than they would have received otherwise.

On top of this was the interminable struggle within the Byzantine Empire itself, among emperors, usurpers, their wives and children, their chosen religious leaders, confidantes, and generals. Like many of the ceaseless wars, these lurid palace intrigues are again known to us more for their colorful character than their decisiveness in history: for instance, emperors or empresses and their families could be ritually mutilated (their noses or tongues slit), making them unfit for office; or, enemies were simply exiled or blinded (in one or both eyes), or were tonsured and forced into holy retirement in a monastery. One emperor, Leo V, was murdered in church on Christmas morning, and his sons castrated.

And when we remember that Constantinople first fell in 1204 to Roman Catholic crusaders, for whom the Eastern Church was as deserving of punishment as the Muslim world, we are reminded of how intertwined religion was in all of this. As history up until yesterday illustrates, when cultural differences aren’t impetus enough, religion can always be counted on to make people more brutal and divisive and violent than they may have ever been otherwise.

For instance, in 812, amid peace talks with the still-pagan Bulgars, the return of Bulgarian deserters from Constantinople (who had converted to Christianity in the meantime) was refused; and so, soon after, the Byzantine border town of Mesembria was sacked, and all those who refused to give up Christianity for paganism were killed. Not two generations later, the Bulgar Khan, Boris, was also converted and baptized, and all Bulgarians were apparently understood to follow suit, with Boris duly executing any pagans who refused. In Byzantine fashion, Boris (now Michael) abdicated his throne in the 890s and retired to a monastery, only to come out of retirement when his eldest son Vladimir showed sympathy with the old paganism. Vladimir was blinded and replaced by another son, Symeon, a former monk who was immensely suspicious of the influence of both the Byzantine Church and state. Now the Bulgarian desire for political sovereignty was matched by a wish for religious autonomy.

For the next hundred or so years, the Bulgarians and Byzantines, now Christians all,  fought each other off with more treaties, yearly-tributes, military engagements, unrequited marriage alliances, and the like. But it was in the 960s that, as mentioned above, the still-pagan Russians were paid to attack the Bulgarians, and the Byzantines were forced to swoop in and save them when they realized this was probably a mistake. The Bulgarian emperor was freed from captivity but forced to abdicate, and the essential annexation of Bulgaria by the Byzantines was put into effect.

This was the stage upon which, at the age of eighteen, the Byzantine Emperor Basil II came to the throne as sole ruler, without any of the co-emperors or regents which had crowded his youth.

Sad for the Bulgarians, who had no way of knowing Basil would go down in history with the name Boulgaroktonos, “Bulgar-Slayer.” At first, it perhaps seemed hopeful for them: the usual internal troubles which plagued Byzantine royal succession allowed the Bulgarians to strengthen and regroup over the next decade or so as Basil tried to secure the throne. While he emerged victorious by 989, he was, Warren Treadgold writes, “cruel and austere”[9] from what had amounted to particularly brutal civil war. He never married, and he refused to trust any generals or advisors. By 990, while planning a war against the resurgent Bulgarians, he was instead distracted by the Muslim armies to the south and east, and most of that decade was spent warring with them from Egypt to Aleppo. By 1004 he was strong enough to fight the Bulgarians to submission, but there was peace barely long enough to say the word.

Then, in the summer of 1014, the Bulgarians made use of a series of ditches and fortifications and literally walled in the Byzantine army in a pass called Kleidion, near the Strymon River in Macedonia. Eighty years later, the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes narrated what happened next:

“When the [Byzantine] emperor had thus despaired of gaining passage, Nicehporus Xiphias, the strategos of Philippopolis, met with the emperor and urged him to stay put and continue to assault the wall, while, as he explained, he turned back with his men and, heading round to the south of Kleidon through rough and trackless country, crossed the very high mountain known as Belasica. On 29 July, in the twelfth indiction [1014, Xiphias and his men] descended suddenly on the Bulgarians, from behind and screaming battle cries. Panic stricken by the sudden assault [the Bulgarians] turned to flee, while the emperor broke through the abandoned wall. Many [Bulgarians] fell and many more were captured; Samuel barely escaped from danger with the aid of his son, who fought nobly against his attackers, placed him on a horse, and made for the fortress known as Prilep. The emperor blinded the Bulgarian captives—around 15,000 they say—and he ordered every hundred to be led back to Samuel by a one-eyed man. And when [Samuel] saw the equal and ordered detachments returning he could not bear it manfully nor with courage, but was himself struck blind and fell in a faint to the ground. His companions revived him for a short time with water and smelling salts, and somewhat recovered he asked for a sip of water. Taking a gulp he had a heart attack and died two days later on 6 October.” [10]


BlindingSkylitzes streamlines the aftermath of the battle a bit, leaving out the part where another contingent of the Bulgarian army slaughtered a good number of Byzantines shortly after the battle. It was this event, apparently, which led Basil to blind his captives. But the fact that the Bulgarians continued to fight well after Kleidion has suggested to some historians that the number of Bulgarians blinded (and so the extent of the Byzantine victory) are exaggerations. However, Catherine Holmes, author of an exhaustive biography of Basil II, notes that he was known for the “fearsome reprisals [used] at key political and military junctures,” which included the impaling and crucifying of enemies during his succession war.[11] So even if the numbers seems exaggerated, the tactics do not; and regardless, a crowd of even one thousand blinded soldiers presents an astounding image to history, one to which I have always returned.

I’ve always thought about these blinded men, who perhaps numbered a good part of an entire generation. What was it like to grow up as one of the children of these men, among neighbors where all the grown men were blind? And how were they blinded? How do you stand as a soldier, how are you pacified, once it becomes obvious what is happening to your fellow soldiers ahead of you, or when one of your eyes is gouged and the other is next? And even granting the rage of battle and the suddenly free opportunity to disfigure the enemy who has been trying to kill you, and even granting that the armies on both sides were filled with lifelong and hardened soldiers, how did the Byzantine army do this methodical thing? And what is it like, the moment light leaves your eyes and only your other senses remain?

And, since I also think of the probably millions of soldiers on both sides who had died since the late 400s, briefly giving the edge to one side or another for at most a generation, I have to wonder: was it worth it?

Should the Bulgarians, back to 493, be blamed for being a small contingent of people who raided an already large empire for supplies, until they grew more rich and organized and sophisticated themselves? Should the Byzantines be blamed for the usual reasons empires are?

Should the idea of “civilization” itself be blamed, that such rounds of unending warfare are the best we can do, or unending rounds of succession wars and infighting (Byzantine emperors were blinded too, remember)?

And should it surprise us that the two empires didn’t stop fighting until the Ottoman Turks conquered them both—Bulgaria in 1396, and Constantinople in 1453?


A little more than nine hundred years later, on July 17, 1917, about fourteen thousand British, French and Dutch soldiers at Ypres, Belgium, were blinded by mustard gas.

According to one section of the Hague Declarations of 1899 concerning asphyxiating gases, many countries (including the various European nations that eventually came against one another in World War I) agreed to ban “projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” [12] Nevertheless, in 1914, the French became the first to ignore this declaration, using tear gas in rifled grenades against the Germans; a few months later, in early 1915, the Germans used tear gas in artillery shells against the Russians—although the weather was too cold for the gas to be effective.

On April 22, the Germans used chlorine gas against British and French forces at Ypres, doing so more “successfully” than their previous attempt with tear gas. And since the success of gas warfare depended almost exclusively on which way the wind was blowing, the horrified Germans who came upon their poisoned enemies were themselves worried about catching up to the cloud. Richard Rhodes describes the scene:

Gas“A greenish-yellow cloud hissed from nozzles and drifted on the wind across no-man’s land. It blanketed the ground, flowed in craters, over the rotting bodies of the dead, through the wide brambles of barbed wire, drifted them across the sandbagged Allied parapets and on the trench walls past the firesteps, filled the trenches, found dugouts and deep shelters: and men who breathed it screamed in pain and choked. It was chlorine gas, caustic and asphyxiating. It smelled as chlorine smells and burned as chlorine burns.

“Masses of Africans and Canadians stumbled back in retreat. Other masses, surprised and utterly uncomprehending, staggered out of the trenches into no-man’s land. Men clawed at their throats, stuffed their mouths with shirttails or scarves, tore the dirt with their bare hands and buried their faces in the earth. They writhed in agony, ten thousand of them, serious casualties; and five thousand others died. Entire divisions abandoned the line.” [13]


Fritz Haber, a German chemist and winner of the 1918 Nobel Prize for his research in the production of fertilizers, is better known for his work in developing chemical weapons of this kind. Only ten days after this first chlorine attack, to which Haber’s work contributed, his wife Clara (also a chemist, and the first woman to earn a PhD from the University of Breslau) committed suicide over her objections to her husband’s work. A colleague recalled Haber’s justification:

Fritz Haber“He explained to me that the Western fronts, which were all bogged down, could be got moving again only by means of new weapons. One of the weapons contemplated was poison gas…. When I objected that this was a mode of warfare violating the Hague Convention he said that the French had already started it—though not to much effect—by using rifle-ammunition filled with gas. Besides, it was a way of saving countless lives, if it meant that the war could be brought to an end sooner.” [14]


This rationalization—which recommended, in other words, to let a good number of soldiers die immediately, rather than scores more in a continued statelmate in the trenches—was used just as ridiculously before and after World War I: After the Civil War in which the machine gun bearing his name had been put to use, Richard J. Gatling recalled: “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by its rapidity of fire, Oppenheimerenable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.” [15] And a version of this excuse was also used from the 1940s onward by the scientists who developed the atomic and hydrogen bombs; J. Robert Oppenheimer, for one, was heard to say that “the atomic bomb is so terrible a weapon that war is now impossible.” [16]

All of them, of course, were wrong, and nowadays it is hard to see how educated men could honestly believe such nonsense. Using machine guns on human beings quickly became acceptable in war, the only reduction in large armies falling to those on the other side of the gun; and the invention of atomic weapons, rather than abolishing war, has merely made everything up to their use acceptable.

Other gases were developed for use in the war, but the blinded soldiers mentioned earlier were hit with mustard gas, named for its mustard- or horseradish-like scent. This odor was able to be masked by mixing it with a lilac-scented tear gas called xylyl bromide; and as haunting an image as the blinded soldiers are, so are those who “ran in terror from a breeze scented with blossoming lilac shrubs.” [17] On the evening of July 17, 1917, when mustard gas was first used, Rhodes writes that

“Shells marked with yellow crosses rained down on the men at Ypres. At first they experienced not much more than sneezing and many put away their masks. Then they began vomiting. Their skin reddened and began to blister. Their eyelids inflamed and swelled shut. They had to be led away blinded to aid stations, more than fourteen thousand of them over the next three weeks.” [18]


vera brittainA British nurse, Vera Brittain, wrote of the wounded:


“I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case—to say nothing of 10 cases—of mustard gas in its early stages—could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes … all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.” [19]


These soldiers apparently recovered their sight over time, but I’ve always connected them with the Bulgarians. While poison gas was far from a major cause of death in the war—of the estimated twenty-one million military wounded for the whole of the war, about 1.3 million were from the effects of gas; and of the estimated number of military killed, about 8.5 million, 177,000 were from gas—nevertheless, gas became a specter of the war, of having gone a step too far. [20]

In 2013, United States Secretary of State John Kerry offered the most recent version of this position. When speaking about the August 21 chemical attack against its own civilians by the government of Syria—a government that had already killed tens of thousands of its own civilians by other means—Kerry had pointed words for the weapons used to kill less than five hundred non-combatants. “What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world,” he said.  “It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.” That qualifier, “by chemical weapons,” is an odd one; certainly he didn’t mean that those killed by other means do not shock the conscience of the world—but civilians killed by other means, nevertheless, did not warrant the outcry or action of the United States which only the chemical attack prompted. Kerry went on to say, “There is a clear reason that the world has banned entirely the use of chemical weapons. There is a reason the international community has set a clear standard and why many countries have taken major steps to eradicate these weapons,” and he continued with a few more “there is a reason” statements, but he never, it seems, gave that reason. The reason should go without saying, perhaps. But perhaps all he means is that, in war, more easily controlled, more obvious, and therefore more “honorable” weapons are to be preferred. Which, again, is an odd thought.



III. History

After awhile, it is hard for me to talk about war, or even history as a whole, without thinking of the Roman historian Tacitus. Amidst his own narrative of warfare and political brutality, he stops to simply say,

“So these accounts have their uses. But they are distasteful. What interests and stimulates readers is a geographical description, the changing fortune of a battle, the glorious death of a commander. My themes on the other hand concern cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocent men ruined—a conspicuously monotonous glut of downfalls and their monotonous causes.” [21]

The difference for me, however, is that the “changing fortunes of battle” are hard nowadays not to separate from the other distasteful monotony. While I love history, sometimes it is just a hard friend. Sometimes the treacherous and monotonous and distasteful elements of it are completely overwhelming.

The waste and shame that reveals itself when one examines history, however, is not in the destruction of politicians, public figures and national history, or that the resources of science, technology, art and religion were all put to these monotonous and disgraceful uses. The shame is in the waste of human life, in the piles of dead soldiers, in (to use the novelist John Masefield’s phrase) the “long grave already dug.” [22]  The very length of this essay illustrates the shame of history: that the trillions of corpses which glut its trenches can only be focused on after a summation of the events which led to whatever horrible event. We only know about these men because of their empty eye sockets, or the chemicals that burned their skin and eyes and lungs. They cannot be separated from the ridiculous politics and warfare which took them.

Maurice Haigh-Wood wrote of these individuals soldiers as well, himself amid them, and the details from his letter in many ways say more than his brother-in-law’s poetry ever could:

“Perhaps you are tempted to give them a picture of a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men. The appalling stench of rotting carrion mingled with the sickening smell of exploded lyddite and ammonal. Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge—porridge that stink in the sun. Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on the pits of offal. Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses: helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling. Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded, smashed faces, or limbs blown into space. Men screaming and gibbering. Wounded men hanging in agony on the barbed wire, until a friendly spout of liquid fire shrivels them up like a fly in a candle. But these are only words, and probably only convey a fraction of their meaning to their hearers. They shudder, and it is forgotten.”[23]


On a visit to Westminster Abbey in the fall of 2012, it was remarkable to be surrounded, quite literally, by the remains of so many kings and queens. But soon after, the mere awe at great age or fame or infamy was replaced.

Edward 1So that while it was astounding to pass by the tomb of King Edward I, who died in 1307, and to be so close to the remains of a man I had read about and who has been history for so long, I suddenly felt ridiculous, caring at all about anecdotal age or mere numbers, when his tomb is inscribed with his title, “Scotorum Malleus,” the Hammer of the Scots. I wonder if a young man of Bulgarian heritage would feel the same way, were he able to visit remains of a man called the Bulgar Slayer, no matter how old or laden with history the moment might be.

What moved me the most in Westminster Abbey was the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which is inscribed: “Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior, unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land and buried here onTomb of the Unknown Soldier Armistice Day, 11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of his Majesty King George V, his ministers of state, the chief of his forces, and a vast concourse of the nation.” It goes on: “Thus are commemorated the many multitudes who during the great war of 1914-1918 gave the most that man can give, life itself, for God, for King and country, for loved ones at home and empire, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world.”

As nice as this sounds, there are few wars in which words of this kind should be associated, and World War I is not one of them. But beneath them are the worst lines: “They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house”—the implication being that it was a privilege to be buried among kings, all of whom were known and named, and whose lives, for being known, are usually rehearsed, as above, for their color and charm and variety, but rarely for their substance.

This is the trade-off of much of history: to know about the past is often to be drowned by the details of people, many of whom are monsters. As with war, this is perhaps what makes history bearable, to make all our leaders more honorable than they were, since otherwise human beings would largely have to abandon celebratory history altogether. And this is not merely a “populist” statement, some easy political quip condemning the rich in favor of the poor. It condemns humanity as a whole, since most people, given power and influence, would likely act the same.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, placed where it is, is like swelling music in a bad movie—it is bad melodrama, manipulating the sympathies of those who have lost most with one hand, while the other hand hides quickly behind the backs of those who bring such calamities upon the world. The Unknown Warrior should be buried with the ones he died with, not the ones who helped kill him.


4. The Old Lie

In the last few years, I’ve realized that one thing I regret not doing was actively protesting the Iraq War. So when Walter Burkert says that “[e]ach generation has the right and the obligation to have its war,”[24] I now see an addition to that: each generation has the right and the obligation to have its protest to war. Both obligations are necessary.

Because the final blindness, really, is the blindness of certainty. Unnecessary war is the waste of life made plain and simple and obvious, and the ease with which human life is discarded is so great that the horror of war—that shoddy governments run by the few have thrown trillions of soldiers and civilians into the nightmare of history for the sake of human folly—cannot be faced, and so war is instead made certainly and desperately inevitable.

And this certainty extends to all aspects of life, so that the real horror and unfortunate nature of much of life is similarly avoided. Think of all the other generational obligations foisted upon us, supposed social ambitions or norms, the attainment of which we are told will give our own lives a sense of security and certainty and meaning. It is not that any of these things (like war) are inherently bad, but when things like marriage or a career or making money are taken up as an expedient rather than with sincerity, and then pressed into service to do the impossible—to make sense of everything, to define our lives and protect us against the storm of uncertainty and weakness which much of life is—whatever might have been positive about these things has become a poison, has become destructive.

The strength experienced in war is the kind of power over life and death which we find nowhere else, and which we wish could overshadow the uncertainty and powerlessness we generally feel every day. But there is no way to avoid the knotted combination of suffering and happiness, and it only blinds us to call all of it good and honorable. Yet James Jones does just this, in the dedication to his World War II novel, The Thin Red Line:

James Jones“This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.”[25]


As if in direct answer to Jones’s almost juvenile sentiment, a character in the novelist Hermann Hesse’s last book, The Glass Bead Game, after looking over his shoulder at the extent of history, asks the following:

“Has the gain been worth the countless victims? Has our present structure of the life of the mind been sufficiently developed, and is it likely to endure long enough, to justify as worthwhile sacrifices all the sufferings, convulsions, and abnormalities: the trials of heretics, the burnings at stake, the many “geniuses” who ended in madness or suicide? For us, it is not permissible to ask these questions. History is as it has happened. Whether it was good, whether it would have been better not to have happened, whether we will or will not acknowledge that it has had “meaning”—all this is irrelevant.” [26]

For the scenario of Hesse’s novel these questions may be irrelevant, but for us today they seem more important than ever. If the best we can do is justify war with our need for “pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation,” or even say that bloodshed and suffering are worth it simply because they sometimes yield great ideas or great art or admirable leaders—where does that leave us? Would we not all be better off if the attitude towards these achievements (let alone failures, let alone shoddy leaders, let alone the close-mindedness which war brings, let alone passionless careers or passionless loves) be one of mourning, or just bittersweetness, rather than blind pride? To say, Yes, the art or the leaders are great, but isn’t a shame they could only come into existence in this way? Is it so hard to hold both these conclusions at once?

History is closer to a funeral than anything else, and we ought not mourn or celebrate the trillions of dead soldiers or civilians (or just the miserable many waiting for the subway each morning) because they died for their countries, or because at least one of them is buried with kings. We should mourn them because it’s a shame that this is how human beings are. And an 1852 editorial in the Hartford Daily Times, extolling the virtues of the Colt Revolver, illustrates our nature perfectly: “Men of science,” it says, “can do no greater service to humanity than by adding to the efficiency of warlike implements, so that the people and nations may find stronger inducements than naked moral suasion to lead them towards peace.” [27]

Yet as we well know, when naked moral suasion fails, so does the persuasive power of religion and politics and culture, none of which are very good deterrents to war or violence to begin with. Naked moral suasion is all we have, even though we always fail it.


IMG_2891This essay began in my head one day while walking in the woods of western Pennsylvania, when the line about “the soldier knows why April might be cruel” came to me. I started by simply wanting to write about two sets of blinded men, and ended up in bleaker territory than I ever expected. The countless numbers of human beings standing behind and in front of these blinded men, those killed before and after them, and all the everyday people who simply die slowly and unhappily and unfulfilled, are too staggering, so much so that the joy taken from history cannot help but be soured. The words which historian Matthew White uses to describe the “interconnected barbarities” of the twentieth century can, I think, stand for all centuries: their circumstances are “so fascinating for historians and so miserable for real people.” [28]

The least we can do, then, is see that everything—our culture, our countries, our technology, our religions, even now—are only here because people who should have never suffered and died did in fact suffer and die, and always have, and always will. We are standing less on the backs of giants, than of corpses—and corpses of real people.

It does no good to give up caring about history; instead, care about it not as a celebration but a premonition. And it is no good to excuse the prejudices or folly or brutality or naiveté of the past as an accident of their time; for while we cannot change the past, the example of history and of all the real people who have been buried beneath its mistakes and atrocities, can at least make us wonder what future generations will see as our folly, our brutality, our naiveté. What assumptions do we take for granted now, which will shame our children and their children and on down the line? Surely they are there, surely there are many, and we cannot afford to be blind to them.






[1] Lines 115-116.

[2] The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1: 1898-1922, Revised Edition, 154.

[3] Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, 48.

[4] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 248.

[5] The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns, Episode 9: “The Better Angels,” timestamp 1:01:50.

[6] For World War I, see; for World War II, see, which lists the estimates of various historians, many of which are more than fifty million, some as high as eighty.

[7] The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1: 1898-1922, Revised Edition, 204-5.

[8] The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1: 1898-1922, Revised Edition, 205.

[9] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 519.

[10] Paul Stephenson, Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204, 71-2.

[11] Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025), 528.


[12] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 91.

[13] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 91.           

[14] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 91-2.

[15] Julia Keller, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It, 27.

[16] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 317.

[17] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 94.

[18] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 94.

[19] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925,

[20] L. F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War, 243-4. 

[21] Tacitus, The Annals 4.33, tr. Michael Grant.

[22] As Rhodes notes in his The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 103, this is the poet John Masefield’s phrase, describing the trenches of World War I.

[23] The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1: 1898-1922, Revised Edition, 205.

[24] Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, 48.

[25] James Jones, The Thin Red Line, page not numbered

[26] Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, tr. Richard and Clara Winston, 19.

[27] Quoted in Julia Keller, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It, 28.

[28] See headnote to, and the links to White’s various books.