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Bar News - July 16, 2014

Opinion: The Great War, Eclipsed, Leaves a Sour Legacy


Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of Michael Davidow’s column from the print edition of the July 16, 2014, issue of Bar News.

I've mentioned before that one of my favorite movies about the law is Paths of Glory, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1957, a story of soldiers who refused to fight and the officer appointed to defend them (played by Kirk Douglas). It can be charged that this is a cynical film, which sides too easily with the poor and uneducated, showing them as victims of an uncaring system. But I think otherwise. As Oscar Wilde taught us, cynicism is knowing the price of things without knowing their value, and Kubrick's work is all about value, and how values often compete with one another: the value of bravery, the value of liberty, the value of law, the value of life.

Its source was a novel written by a World War One veteran named Humphrey Cobb in 1935. He based his book on the actual experiences of four corporals from the French 136th Regiment, who were executed by their superiors for mutiny after a failed assault near the town of Souain in March 1915. Those executions were later ruled unfair, and two of the families affected were awarded damages: one franc per family. The other men's families received nothing.

These families probably became cynical -- in a non-Wildean sense, that is.

But the First World War led many others to the same mindset – a mindset that has become so ingrained in our modern way of being that we may find it hard to believe it was ever new – and we are celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Our country fought in that war, but we came to it late. It also never touched our shores, and it tended to be overshadowed by our communal memories of the Civil War (in which four or five times as many Americans were killed). Then it got entirely eclipsed by the Second World War. And, at some point, it became cute. Snoopy fought the Red Baron in a Sopwith Camel.

But this is the war that saw soldiers overmatched by their own technology for the very first time; this is the war that turned bureaucracy from daily annoyance into lethal enemy; this is the war that promoted anarchy as an answer to the pain of life. In other words, this is the war that we are still fighting, whether we like it or not.
‘GOOD-MORNING; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
That poem is by Siegried Sassoon, who also wrote the novels Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, of 1928 and 1930. And the problem he was commenting on was a simple one: Battlefield strategies had not yet evolved to account for mechanical progress. Machines guns, tanks, poison gas. And, as a result of that, the two sides of this awful war reached stalemate relatively quickly. And the main effect was this: men died.

That voice of sarcasm, of wounded vanity and decency destroyed, can be seen in many different colors, too; in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms of 1929, which plays it almost unbearably straight; in Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk of 1923, whose hapless anti-hero is ordered from one front of this war to the next, only to act the same everywhere: he avoids battle, stays drunk, and sleeps with prostitutes (shades of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, from 1961); in the searing Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, written in 1939 – all books that became popular again in the wake of Viet Nam. Because everything old is new again, when youth is betrayed by age.

So, there is no true legal hook to this column, though a great many of this conflict’s veterans moved on to illustrious careers in the law (Earl Warren and Hugo Black among them), and I pass three streets in Nashua every day on my way to court – Joffre, Edwards, and Pershing – each happily named for a once-famous general.

But then again, when I think of how the GM legal department put its head in the sand repeatedly when it came to recalling death traps from the road, or how our Justice Department can’t quite wrap its head around the horror of Guantanamo Bay, or how the NSA asks for our trust even as it lies to us about reading our mail, perhaps we as lawyers, particularly, should care far more about how and why we first became such a cynical nation.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The author’s opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.

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