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Would You Rather?
I went to bed last night after reading scripture with my wife, as we often do, and instead of drifting into a long, needed sleep, I was haunted by an idea. Would I rather, knowing what I know about the modern day and of history, live now or live to fight at the Somme? Rather than answer the question, I interrogated my mind to understand why I would ask myself such a question. Why The Somme? After some tossing and turning about it, I concluded that not only was the First World War the death of the West (not my idea), I concluded that the Battle of the Somme was the exact moment of expiration. As soon as the Pals went over the top, these childhood friends who'd answered their country's call, the war changed and Western Civilization started its terminal decline.
Hudson, you might ask, how can you pinpoint that specific moment? There were several terrible battles in that awful war. Why not Gallipoli from the year previous? Why not Verdun? Paschandal? The Marne?
True. However, the Somme, I'd argue is uniquely terrible because the bulk of its casualties were poorly trained civilians, who joined out of a sense of duty and were failed by their government and the army. The main bulk of the fighting forces were young men who'd volunteered with their colleagues, classmates or childhood friends with the promise of fighting together. The professional armies that started the war were so depleted by this point that the industrial meat grinder of the Western Front demanded new blood and got it in droves. Almost 20,000 British dead on the first day alone.
The war, after such catastrophic losses, could never be settled without a punitive peace. The powers were now too invested to settle for anything less than unconditional surrender and the total destruction of whole governments and ways of life. I may also be biased in my assessment, being an American of Anglo stock, my affinities align with the British people, who at the time had the largest Empire in the world. They were also facing a near peer in the German Empire, who may not have possessed the territorial holdings on par with the British or even the French, but were no doubt the cultural juggernaut of the continent. A clash between these two proved a phyrric victory and mortal wound to our civilization.
It seems pretty obvious that one should want to be living today rather than live in the trenches at any point in the war but especially before one of its most costly battles as one of its least prepared soldiers compared.
Only a man who has never experienced war could wonder fondly about it. I work a boring 9-5. I was in the army, but never saw combat nor ever sniffed the Frontline of anything except the mess hall. It's folly to wonder such things, I try to tell myself. But I remain unconvinced. The propaganda wouldn't work if it wasn't true, at least a little. There is a romance to the sting of battle. Ernst Junger, whom no one could call a poser, wrote about his affinity for warfare. Every man has at least wondered how they'd fare in combat, believing they had the potential to be great under fire. It is hard-coded in us, even in this modern age which has tried to neuter men and make extinct the martial spirit.
I'm reminded of a tweet, I cannot find it now, that basically read "What if the reason we have all these sad, purposeless young men today is because the majority of them were denied their destiny of dying in combat?" Ignoring the theological questions this brings up, I think it is spiritually true, a kind of truth that cuts through facts and logic and supplants them as lesser methods for understanding the world.
Can you look at the average man and say his life would not improve if he was instilled with discipline, denied his hedonic pleasures and be given the opportunity to prove to himself and his peers that he is trustworthy, brave, honorable and deadly? Wouldn't you want to know if men you trusted were cowards? Is death worse than desperation? I don't know. And it wouldn't be just you over there. Every social strata went to fight. Proper English gentlemen put their skin in the game and died with the unwashed masses that made up the majority of society.
And what if you lived? Let's say, you survive the battle and even the rest of the war and you aren't shell-shocked or gravely wounded, wishing you were dead, but instead returned home to what is now a dying society. Can't be much better than life today can it? Rates of depression and suicide were surely greater after the Great War, right? No. In fact today, they've never been higher. You'd live in a majority White, Christian society where you could support a family on one income. You could find a wife who was a virgin until marriage and you could eat foods that isn't poison. Your testosterone levels would be much higher than they are today. Unless you really fucked up, there was little chance that your sons would want to mutilate their own genitals and your daughters would become prostitutes. Even if you were not particularly religious, you would benefit from Christian social norms and practices. You could own your own home. When you were sick or elderly, you could die with some dignity rather than extend your own life for a few painful moments longer at great cost to your children and loved ones.
You'd miss out on the technological blob that has assimilated much of the population these days. You'd miss out on the next Marvel movie. Even though you know where it ends up. Even though your grandchildren or great grand children will inherit a hell you want to escape today, I'd consider doing it. And I don't think I'm alone. I am not the first to be nostalgic for a time I'd never lived through. I'm not the first to downplay the horror of war to lift up its virtues. But I am awake at 4 AM and may go back to sleep soon and if I wake up in a trench with a man that looks like The Prudentialist waving me over the top into God knows what kind of industrial murder machine, I can imagine being content.