Letter from MHQ: Shock and Awful | HistoryNet

Letter from MHQ: Shock and Awful

By Michael W. Robbins
11/12/2013 • MHQ Issues

WITH THIS ISSUE OF MHQ we have entered the centenary year of the Great War, and shall, inevitably, embark on fresh efforts to comprehend and “understand” one of the greatest calamities ever to befall humankind. That it was entirely self-inflicted and not the result of floods, plagues, volcanic eruptions, or asteroid strikes makes it the more important to look inward, again, and try to understand, in the cry of the time, “What have we done?”

The last veterans, the last witnesses to the war have joined the legions of the dead, so it now and henceforth lies entirely within the compass of history. But that does not mean that people alive today no longer directly feel its effects. In that four-year span of armed and industrial violence, eight million people died “prematurely,” that is, from causes that were anything but natural—including being deliberately poisoned by deadly gases. The impacts of that fact are immeasurable: Families, towns, institutions, cities, nations, even empires around the globe were destroyed by the events of those four years.

This is the war that changed everything. One of the most thoughtful and perceptive observers of this war, Paul Fussell (he was, not incidentally, a participant in and survivor of one of World War II’s bloodiest European campaigns, a self–described “wounded ex-infantry officer”), wrote two of the most useful sentences in English about this war: “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” and “It reversed the Idea of Progress.” Both those statements appear in the opening pages of his indispensable The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).

One thing is certain: The Great War was the end of one world and the beginning of another, marking a historic division as surely as the natural cataclysms of 66 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs mark the end of the Cretaceous Era. It marked the end of empires and royalties, of Victorian peace and prosperity, of Enlightenment optimism, and in the broadest sense, of innocence. Writing just after the armistice, poet T. S. Eliot summed up that irreversible change in our sense of our selves and our world in a mere five words: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Eliot phrased it as a question. After 100 years, we are still seeking answers.


—Michael W. Robbins


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