Shovel them under, and let me work

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November 11 is not a holiday in the countries that were on the losing side that day in 1918. In the countries that “won,” the holiday’s meaning is probably not apparent to very many people anymore. The world that fought that war is a lost world now, and the way people thought then is only a little bit more accessible to us than the way people thought during the Crimean War or the Thirty Years’ War. We don’t remember what all of it was really about, and even when someone explains it to us we can’t fit what we are hearing into intellectual categories that might make sense today.

In the last year of World War I, Carl Sandburg published a very short poem called “Grass:”

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under, and let me work — I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

‘What place is this? Where are we now?’

I am the grass.

Let me work.

The process of forgetting the war dead might take more than the two years or ten years in Sandburg’s poem, and I think it certainly takes longer than that for a culture’s entire intellectual framework to shift. But that framework has undoubtedly shifted since 1918. In the United States, the mental landscape in which foreign policy is made bears no resemblance to that of the first half of the twentieth century. The pacifism of William Jennings Bryan, who resigned as secretary of state because he thought President Wilson’s stern note to Germany over the sinking of the Lusitania was too belligerent, is incomprehensible today. Now there is no potential candidate in the United States for secretary of state who might take such a stance.

Nor is it possible today to imagine an American president who would resist, as Woodrow Wilson did, the creation of a “general staff” of military officers or a security council. Wilson was opposed to such institutions because he thought they would inevitably engender militarism. In Wilson’s papers, there is an instruction from the president to make sure not to include General Leonard Wood among the guests at a private dinner party. It’s a tiny little scrap of history, but I love this document because the reason Wilson hated Wood was that Wood was a notorious militarist who criticized Wilson for not allowing the armed forces to set up an autonomous, coordinated war-planning capacity.

Well, Wood certainly got the last laugh, didn’t he? The days are long gone — but they really did exist! — when it was considered an affront to the very idea of a republic for military officers to swagger around Washington in uniform. There is no political figure in the United States right now who would even understand why Wilson was opposed to giving the military the power of initiative in national security planning; but also the political culture of the United States no longer has the capacity to produce such a figure.

One of the most fateful meetings in American history actually took place in Germany, (where November 11 is most definitely not a holiday). That was the meeting at Pleß Castle at the end of January 1917, at which the leaders of Germany’s war effort decided to launch a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean. The records of the meeting demonstrate that they were well aware that their decision would force the United States to enter the war, but the political leadership believed the military men’s assurances that the army could have the whole thing wrapped up before the Americans could make any difference. It turned out they were wrong.

I have, as an American, a special hatred for the men of Pleß Castle, but not because of the submarine warfare itself or for anything else that happened in the war. I hate them because what these men did was prove Leonard Wood right and Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan wrong. I cannot forgive them for that.

It took a second world war and the advent of atomic weapons to fully kill off anti-militarism in American history. So you could argue that I’m being too hard on the bumblers of Pleß Castle (which incidentally is now in Poland). Besides, Leonard Wood and the Americans were already mowing down women and children in the Philippines (look up the battle of Bud Dajo sometime) at least as early as 1906, long before the German U-boats were sinking anything anywhere. So who are we kidding? Did anti-militarism really ever have a chance?

Still, this chain of reflections seems relevant to me now, as I follow the proposals of the German defense minister for more military spending, an “accelerated” process to approve the use of force, and more involvement by Germany in faraway places like the South China Sea — and of the French president for a more independent European military capacity. Meanwhile, the United States, to its eternal dishonor, does whatever it can to speed this process along.

This holiday in Britain and the Commonwealth countries is called Remembrance Day. I remember today how much struggle it took for the various nations of the west, or most of them, to achieve even a semblance of fragile unity. In the United States, we read Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby, a letter of condolence from the president to a woman who lost five sons in the Civil War, as a reminder of the cost of war. In my first travels around France, I was struck by the monuments, in every single village, no matter how small, to the men from the village who died in World War I. Every name is inscribed in stone. I saw that nearly every village I stopped in had a Mrs. Bixby in it — there were often three or four names of brothers who had fallen. Sometimes there were fathers and their sons on the list.

We can’t be sure what might cause wars like that one to return, but we know what it took to stop them. It feels today like we’re the passengers on the train in Sandburg’s poem, speeding by the monuments and asking, “Where are we now?”


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