Thursday, December 3, 2015

Still trying to understand WWI

by Richard Koenigsberg

I. Aztec warfare: feeding the sun god

In our conventional thinking, warfare occurs when one group of people attacks another group of people. We imagine that this attack is occasioned by the perception of a threat to one’s own group, by a desire to conquer or plunder the other group, or to obtain revenge for past injustices. In any case, people believe that warfare constitutes a condition or state-of-being characterized by human beings performing acts that are "aggressive."

I propose to reconceptualize the nature and meaning of warfare. Aztec warfare provides a beginning case study. Aztec warfare did revolve around conquest and plunder, but more fundamentally, its purpose was to capture warriors from the opposing city-state—in order to sacrifice them.

When the Aztecs waged war, they did not try to kill their adversaries. Rather, they captured soldiers and brought them back home to the sacrificial block at the top of a pyramid—where priests cut open their chests, extracted their hearts and offered the warrior’s heart to the sun god.

According to historian Alfredo Lopez Austin (1988), as long as men could offer the blood and hearts of captives taken in combat, the "power of the sun god would not decline"—he would "continue on his course above the earth." To keep the sun moving in its course so that "darkness should not overwhelm the world forever," anthropologist Jacques Soustelle explains(2002) that it was necessary to "feed it every day with its food"—the "precious water," that is, with human blood.

Unlike the Aztecs, we in the West imagine that wars are fought for "real" reasons or purposes. We understand the death or maiming of soldiers in battle as the by-product that occurs as societies seek to attain practical or political objectives. We do not claim that warfare’s purpose is to produce sacrificial victims, although the result of every war is a multitude of dead soldiers.

II. Sacrifice for gods called France, Germany and Great Britain

In the course of the First World War (1914-1918) approximately 9 million men were killed, 21 million injured, and 8 million captured or reported missing. This war was one of the greatest instances of mass slaughter in the history of the human race. The death toll for one five-month period in 1916—during which the Battles of the Somme Verdun took place—was almost a million men. This represented more than 6,600 men killed every day: 277 every hour, or nearly five each minute.

World War I is famous for the strange way in which battles were fought. Men were asked by the leaders of their nations to get out of trenches and to advance toward the enemy line, where they were met with and torn apart by artillery shells and machine gun fire. In spite of the futility of this strategy, it was never abandoned. The result: four years of perpetual slaughter.

What was going on? Why were leaders willing to continue to push men into battle—and why did young men continue to fight—knowing there was a high probability that they would be killed and a low probability that anything would be accomplished?

We're dealing with something extraordinary. Historians to this day despair when they attempt to explain the monumental carnage. Joanna Bourke in Dismembering the Male (1996) states that during the First World War the male body was "intended to be mutilated." How can we comprehend an event—created by human beings—whose primary product was death and the maiming of men’s bodies?

When war was declared in 1914, excited crowds celebrated in every major city. One million volunteers joined the British army during the first year. War Office recruiting stands were inundated with men persuaded of their duty to fight. The soldiers were cheered on as they rushed off to battle.

The First World War cannot be understood apart from peoples’ attachment to entities called "countries." Leaders, combatants and populaces alike believed that they were acting to defend and preserve their nations. A monumental orgy of destruction was undertaken and justified in the name of regenerating gods called "France”, "Germany”, and "Great Britain”.

Perhaps the Aztec case throws light upon the First World War. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George described the war as a "perpetual, driving force" that "shoveled warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace."

III. The individual must die so the nation might live

In the midst of the First World War, nationalist writer Maurice Barrès praised French soldiers (in The Faith of France,1918) who were dying on a daily basis:

Oh you young men whose value is so much greater than ours! They love life, but even were they dead, France will be rebuilt from their souls. The sublime sun of youth sinks into the sea and becomes the dawn which will hereafter rise again.

Soustelle notes that the Aztecs believed that the warrior who died in battle or upon the stone of sacrifice "brought the sun to life" and became a "companion of the sun." The rising sun was the "reincarnation of a dead warrior."

Barrès declared that French soldiers—the "sublime sun of youth"—would sink into the sea to become the dawn that would "rise again." Just as the Aztecs believed that the bodies and blood of sacrificed warriors kept the sun god alive, so Barrès believed that the French nation would be regenerated based on the bodies and souls of dead soldiers.

According to historian Burr Brundage (1986), Aztec warriors who died or were cremated on the field of battle "spilled their blood on the bosom of mother earth" and then in flames ascended to "enter the sun god’s entourage." Commenting on the First World War in 1915, P. H. Pearse, founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement, gushed that the previous 16 months had been the "most glorious in the history of Europe." The earth, he said, needed to be "warmed with the red wine of the battlefields." He described the carnage as an offering to God: millions of lives "given gladly for love of country."

The First World War was undertaken, justified and perpetuated in the name of countries. The assumption seems to have been that the "lives" of nations were more significant than the lives of human beings. Germany, France and Great Britain were fed with the bodies and blood of soldiers—sacrificial victims—in order to keep these entities alive.

"The individual must die so that the nation might live" has been uttered throughout the history of modern warfare. But what does this proposition mean? The First World War represented an extraordinary enactment of this idea or fantasy: the nation was imagined to come alive insofar as it was fed with the bodies and blood of sacrificed soldiers. Warfare represented the enactment of a fantasy of death and resurrection.