Today marks the 90th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Verdun, one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare. That World War I (WW I) battle began with a German offensive aimed at crippling the French and ended with the French pushing the Germans back and regaining lost territory. When the battle was over, each side had suffered approximately 400,000 casualties, roughly half of that total being fatalities. (Some estimates put the total number of causalities closer to one million.)
More soldiers were killed at Verdun than the total number of U.S. troops deployed in Iraq. Even as the slaughter of Verdun helps us gain perspective on American losses in the current war, we recognize that one death is one death too many. And it’s impossible to measure the pain that each family who lost a loved one has suffered.
Despite the valor of many on those bloody fields ninety years ago, the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives at Verdun died in vain. The victors at Verdun — and of World War I — imposed harsh terms on the vanquished and so helped set the stage for the rise of Hitler, whose aggression they failed to challenge until it was too late. Less than a quarter century after Verdun, the next generation of Germans and French soldiers would face off in another bloody war and millions of Europeans would perish.
It is too soon to tell whether those Americans who died in Iraq have died in vain. If our project there succeeds, we will have helped promote our own security by defeating a tyrant who threatened the region and who sought the means to attack us. At the same time, we are helping democracy and freedom flourish in the nation that dictator once ruled with an iron fist.
Unlike the victors at Verdun, our leaders have, even before the war started, had an idea of the victory we wanted to achieve. Instead of humiliating Iraq as the Allies humbled Germany after WW I, we seek to rebuild our erstwhile adversary. On September 12, 2002, President Bush told the United Nations:
The people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world. These nations can show by their example that honest government, and respect for women, and the great Islamic tradition of learning can triumph in the Middle East and beyond.
Contrast that vision with the sinister maneuvering which caused World War I. The Austro-Hungarian general staff used the June 1914 assassination (by a Serbian nationalist) of their Archduke Francis Ferdinand to attack Serbia. Soon allies of the two nations joined in the fray and by the end of the year an entire continent was engulfed in war.
At the outset of the First World War, neither side gave much thought to the world after the war. Nations were driven more by commitment to their alliances, nationalistic pride and a desire to exact vengeance from national enemies — real and imagined.
As we remember the hundred of thousands who were killed or maimed at Verdun, we need to bear in mind how much we have learned from that horrible encounter — and its aftermath. We know the horrors of war and that bloody sacrifice does not necessarily lead to an honorable conclusion. The “war to end all wars” failed to live up to its supposedly defining expression.
There are already signs that we are reaching a more honorable conclusion in Iraq. Just over a year ago, American troops fought one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war, clearing the city of Fallujah of the terrorists who had taken over in the aftermath of the defeat of Saddam’s tyranny. In the November 2004 battle for that city, our armed forces suffered 70 dead and 600 wounded. As soon as our troops cleared the terrorists out, they welcomed the people back and have since then been working with them to rebuild the town.
When the French finally succeeded in repulsing the Germans from Verdun and later, with the help of their British and American allies, in defeating their once-proud army, they had no interest in rebuilding a shattered nation and instead sought, through the harsh provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, to cripple the vanquished power.
While the losses our troops have suffered in Iraq are minuscule in comparison to the losses in just one battle (albeit the bloodiest) of the First World War, they remain losses nonetheless, a loss to our nation and a terrible cost to the families of those brave men and women. The victors of this war have clearly learned from the failures of the victors of that nearly century-old war. Even so, we need to keep in mind the question that Dave Kane (like Norah Vincent and myself, a graduate of America’s finest small college) asked, whether “the benefits for this improvement are worth the costs in blood and treasure.”
As we remember Verdun in the midst of the current war, let us resolve to achieve a victory so that, unlike the aftermath of that bloody battle, the next generation will not have to sacrifice as this one has.
-Dan (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com