Thursday, June 01, 2006

No Leaf Clover

I'm beginning to contemplate a run into the fiction area. I've got ideas for stories that could probably be made into some kind of extended novel, but I don't know that I've got the patience to write it.

World War I has always been the forgotten war in America's eyes. Maybe that's what happens when you live in the shadow of the greatest war on the face of the Earth, being only twenty years before it. However, I've always thought that WWI was probably the far more brutal war in terms of the human experience.

In WWII, the cause was clear, the enemy was truly evil, and we were under the assumption that if we did not conquer these imperial nations, the world would end. In WWI, there was no such cause. It was simply another European war, the same as any that Napoleon or others started. For America to be involved in it is indeed strange to me.

Politics aside though, that war was horrific. Life was lived in deep trenches. The war itself consisted of charging into the flaming mouths of machine guns, being under constant shellling by artillery shells as big as a man, and having the constant threat of poison gas ripping your lungs out of your chest. The tactics were outdated for the advanced weaponry, and so millions got slaughtered in doomed charges and brutal infighting.

We mortals are but shadows and dust
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I take an interest in this for two reasons. The first reason is a family driven one: my great grandfather fought in the trenches in France as an artillerymen back in 1916. My grandmother still has the letters from him back to his family in Jersey City, and some of the letters that my great great grandfather sent him. The two of them were very close, this father and son, and it can be seen in the regularity that they talked. Of course, my great-great grandfather would always sign the letters in the stoical way of writing, "James S. Lynch", even though he sent them to his own son. These old letters don't have many important things in them- mostly the family bullshit that all of us go through. The father wrote of taking "Little Bobby" to see Santa Claus during Christmas time, things like that (ironically, "Little Bobby" is my great- uncle, one that I remember as a 83 year old man who would constantly ride his bike around Point Pleasant).

As the letters passed on, though, the father's handwriting got less and less legible. Eventually, in a cruel twist of fate fit only for the movies, the old man passed away while his son was in the midst of the trenches. The letter came from one of his aunts to inform the younger Lynch that his father was dead. I will wonder forever what that man was thinking at that the greatest war the world has ever seen, seeing war and death and what might seem like Hell risen to the surface, and all you can think about is going back to Jersey City to see your father as he dies. 'Tis a cruel world indeed.

The second reason I'm interested is simply the name it has, a name that belies the cruelty that raged in those fateful years : The War to End all Wars. That name in itself has all of the apocalyptic power that men have dwelling inside them; the ability to start a war so great, so catastrophic, that we willingly destroy the entire world, ensuring that there will never be another, for there will be no people left to fight it. It's the idea that so many men were killed from all different countries that an entire generation was nearly annihilated . It's also a wonder that we could do the same thing twenty years later, and scare the shit out of ourselves when we dropped that bomb on Hiroshima, all the while trembling at our own power.

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If I write a novel, than this will be my great endeavor. To embed a single Irishman from Jersey City into the middle of the greatest war in the history of man, and watch him witness the horrific things that men can do to each other, all in the name of God and Country. It will be a novel that makes us realize that war is not tickertape parades after the victory; it is men being blown apart by shells. It will make us realize that the main characters don't always live, and don't get honorable deaths where they can mutter last words about their families to their comrades. It will make us realize that those bullets don't care who they hit, and they have no remorse for the widowed wives, the fatherless sons, and the crying mothers. It will make us realize that the long rows of white crosses decorated with American flags were something that we could have avoided, and something that will never be justified. It will make us realize the ghastly, awe-inspiring, brutal mess that men create. It will make us realize that it truly is the Old Lie, perhaps the greatest lie that we've ever come up with: That it is sweet and right to die for your country.
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If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
- Wilfred Owen

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