“In Flanders the British have captured 800 yards of German trenches south of Ypres, only to lose them subsequently,” America reported in the issue of March 11, 1916. “In Asia Minor, the Russians are making progress…. The only other theater where there has been fighting of an important character is Verdun.”
That last sentence contains the first reference in our archives to one of the longest, deadliest battles in human history. It began the previous month, when the German Fifth Army attacked the troops of the French Second Army in the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse, in northeastern France. When America went to press with that first report, nearly 70,000 men had already fallen. Nearly one million more men from both sides would be killed or wounded before it was over, a number greater than the population of present-day San Francisco.
What we see and how we see it largely depends on where we are standing.
On a bright, windswept day last October, I climbed the stairs of the 151-foot tower that marks the highest point of the battlefield. From the observation deck at the top, I had a panoramic view of the battlefield, where row upon row of alabaster headstones stand mute on a vast countryside still pockmarked by the artillery fire. The tower itself caps an enormous ossuary containing the remains of more than 100,000 unknown soldiers. Through the small windows in the tower’s base, you can see countless piles of human bones, some 12 or 15 feet high. “The windows,” I thought. “The people who designed this place wanted us to see this in all its grotesque magnitude. They wanted us to recoil at the sight of it. They wanted us to remember.”
As my stomach churned and my eyes swelled with tears, I reached for the handkerchief in my pocket. There I also found my iPhone, vibrating with the latest news. I looked down and reviewed the last couple of dozen posts in my Twitter feed: some war talk in Washington, serious charges of sexual harassment, political maneuverings hither and yon. Interesting stuff, some of it serious. But none of it seemed important, at least not in relation to where I was standing.
And that’s the point. What we see and how we see it largely depends on where we are standing. A shared sense of history, of what was, or might’ve been, or could be again, is the indispensable touchstone of our collective judgment, for memory is the soul of conscience. “History, despite its wrenching pain,” Maya Angelou once wrote, “cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
A shared sense of history is the indispensable touchstone of our collective judgment, for memory is the soul of conscience.
Remembering the past also relativizes the present, reminds us of what is ultimately important and enduring. The church, for example, is one of only two institutions, along with the synagogue, that survived the fall of the Roman Empire. It is probably not going to be brought down by our contemporary ecclesiastical politicking. We’re just not that powerful. And the church will likely survive the United States. Long after the United States has joined Rome and Austria-Hungary and Britain on the ash heap of imperial history, the people of God will still gather to participate in the one true history of humanity, to worship the true Creator and Redeemer of us all. I find hope in that, at least as much as I find despair in the ossuary in Verdun.
The thing about history, though, is that one must know it for it to be instructive. For the first time in human existence, the sum of human knowledge is literally in the palms of our hands. Yet we are painfully ignorant of our own history, like trees without deep roots, easily tumbled by the slightest gale. We often say when talking about dementia that one of the greatest tragedies that can befall an individual is to lose his or her memory. But it’s just as tragic when a people loses its collective memory. It is also far more dangerous. “The beginning of the end of war,” Herman Wouk once wrote, “lies in remembrance.” Without a sense of history, we risk becoming the myopic, jingoistic mob that the poet-soldier Siegfried Sassoon spoke of in his poem, “A Suicide in the Trenches”:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Ten months after its first report, America was still covering the cataclysm at Verdun: “Additional battles have been reported from the Verdun district at Mort Homme Hill and Hill 304,” one dispatch read. “But no decisive results were obtained.”
For their sake, as well as ours and that of future generations, that last part especially is worth remembering.