Remember how, in 9th grade, you learned about the causes of World War I, and none of them really made sense? Sure, someone shot Duke Ferdinand, but how that led to machine guns, trench foot, and an entire generation of dead French men really didn’t add up. We can, to a degree, understand the horror of it, better than we can understand the why. Even without any living WWI veterans in the US–Frank Buckles, of Bethany, Missouri, was the last American veteran to die, back in 2011, at age 110–we can get a sense of the both the horror and the futility of 17 million deaths and the lives of PTSD and other suffering that lived on past the end of the war.
It’s a pointlessness that Hemingway captured in one of my favorite passages of literature, from the 1925 short story “Soldier’s Home.” We’ve heard of the horrors that young Harold Krebs has seen in war, but he’s not shared the details with his parents, with whom he lives in their little Oklahoma town upon his return. Still, his mother insists that she understands: “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are…. I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.” In response, Hemingway writes, “Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.”
That futility of war–It’s what I see in the Trump administration’s warmongering in Korea and China right now. I can imagine the horror–the suffering that would mostly fall to some of the people most suffering in the world already, North Koreans–but the why of it makes no sense. Three months ago, we were in a pretty stable place with Korea. Now, we’re mischaracterizing Sino-Korean history, miscommunicating our military intentions, and squandering our international credibility. And why? So Mike Pence can give a manly squint toward Kim Jong-un? This is a dictator who probably cruelly poisoned his half-brother and has executed more than 300 people since coming to power. Mike Pence’s flinty glare isn’t going to intimidate him.
Donald Trump has no respect for human life, has never been at the mercy of others’ decisions about his own life or death or even his mild discomfort, and takes no responsibility for other people (This is how you end up with 5 children from 3 wives.). Grand, inherited wealth provides that kind of protection. I think it’s quite possible that his brain genuinely does not comprehend danger–not out of bravery but out of a total disconnection from reality. We know that teen drivers are dangerous, for example, because their brains really can’t understand the permanence of death. I wonder if Trump’s unearned wealth means he never had to develop the part of his brain that comprehends death or suffering, too. He doesn’t read, of course, so he couldn’t have learned it from Stephen Ambrose or Ernest Hemingway or Wilfred Owens or Tim O’Brien or David Finkle or Rory McCarthy. He thinks war journalists are “the enemy of the people,” and God knows he’s not going to pick up a book by someone writing from an Iraqi and Afghan perspective.
So it’s not surprising that he didn’t attend the WWI Centennial in Kansas City, home to the federal memorial dedicated to veterans of the Great War, last month. In fact, it only makes sense that we would have nothing to do with the evidence of human suffering that it recognizes.
Above, the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.