The Big One

Tuesday, August 17th, 2004

The Big One opens with the “clear, ringing, and, unfortunately, contradictory lessons” of the two World Wars:

The First World War teaches that territorial compromise is better than full-scale war, that an “honor-bound” allegiance of the great powers to small nations is a recipe for mass killing, and that it is crazy to let the blind mechanism of armies and alliances trump common sense. The Second teaches that searching for an accommodation with tyranny by selling out small nations only encourages the tyrant, that refusing to fight now leads to a worse fight later on, and that only the steadfast rejection of compromise can prevent the natural tendency to rush to a bad peace with worse men. The First teaches us never to rush into a fight, the Second never to back down from a bully.

Going into the Great War, no one expected such unprecedented levels of carnage:

The scale and suddenness of the killing that began that summer still has the power to amaze us. The war began on August 4th. By August 29th, there were two hundred and sixty thousand French dead. The first battles were as bad as the last. A German lieutenant led his virgin division into battle in Lorraine that month and, coming under French fire for the first time, looked around after a minute ?to see how many are still fit to fight. The bugler, who has remained by my side like a shadow, says to me sadly, “Herr Leutnant, there is nobody there any more!?” Almost the entire unit had been annihilated at first contact.

The means of annihilation are familiar. The machine gun, in particular, created a zone of death that would simply saw a soldier in two if he entered it. At Waterloo, an infantry soldier could fire twice a minute. The machine gun fired six hundred rounds a minute. Even the infantry rifle now could fire a dozen times a minute, and at a mile’s range.

Leave a Reply