I’ve been reading a book about the Crimean War lately. It’s actually called The Crimean War, by Orlando Figes. It was a birthday present from my oldest son, and a completely awesome one, not because I’ve got some kind of jones for obscure nineteenth century wars, but because he knows I do have a jones for any book about any era in history, and the Crimean War happens to be one I don’t know much about. The Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightengale, Tolstoy’s Sevastapol Sketches: that’s about it. Well, now I know more.
It’s a great read. Figes is my favorite kind of historian: thorough, in-depth, clear about events and personalities and strategies and tactics. But my gosh, what an awful war.
The British were certain they could finish the war in a few weeks, and didn’t send any winter supplies–their troops had light overcoats, light summer tents, light provisions. The Russians never really bothered to supply their armies. The French were a little more conscientious about the welfare of their troops; the Turks not at all. Deaths from cholera plagued both sides in the summer, deaths from exposure and pneumonia wiped out soldiers throughout the winter. The Russian soldiers were, for the most part, serfs, and essentially went unfed–they were forced to forage, and many starved to death. British troops were routinely flogged, for even the most minor of infractions. Until Florence Nightengale showed up, medical care for the sick and wounded was close to non-existent.
So what were they fighting for? Most of the soldiers on all sides had no idea. Most of their commanders had only the vaguest notion. It’s not that Figes isn’t exhaustively thorough in his discussion of the war’s causes. All the nations fighting in Crimea had different, irreconcilable objectives. Something about curbing Russia’s expansionist ambitions, with the Brits and French and Austrians eying the crumbling Ottoman empire, each with their own endless nineteenth colonization ambitions. There were also, inevitably, religious overtones–the Tsar saw himself as the protector of Orthodox interests, the Brits were unaccountably Islamophilic.
Very very serious and intelligent men thought carefully and hard about their nations’ geopolitical needs and interests, and concluded that war was both inevitable and desirable. And the public, and the newspapers that shaped and amplified their views, were gung-ho for it. And that’s always true, isn’t it? The decision to go to war is rarely if ever taken lightly. But once taken, we’re all in. The saddest verse in the Star Spangled Banner, for me, is the fourth verse: “then conquer we must, when our cause, it is just.” When are we ever not convinced that it is?
Then historians look back at them, the newspapers and journals and the writings of those serious, powerful men. We reexamine their motives and objectives, and their wars seem so incredibly pointless, their deliberations shallow, their motives venal. It almost never seems justifiable, the bloodshed and horror, the suffering and sickness. When we look back at those moments in history when old men sent young men to die, it almost never looks anything but pointless and foolish.
The Crimean War was unique in one regard–it’s the first major war in which armies made full use of the small unit cohesian theory. The idea was that an army should consist of relatively small groups of men, men who would train together and serve together, that they would fight harder for men they had come to regard as comrades and friends. Talk to people who have served in combat, and they nearly always talk about their fellow soldiers, the other guys in their unit. Ask what they fought for, and usually soldiers have some sense of a large objective. But that’s not what they end up fighting for. They fight for each other. They fight for their friends.
For us? For us civilians, at home? Maybe, sometimes. Mostly, not. We justify it that way, their pointlessly heroic sacrifices. We say ‘they fought for us.” That was maybe true for the Second World War. And that’s about the only time Americans fought in a war where our way of life was seriously threatened. That’s the one war that seems a bit justified, fighting to defeat a madman.
There aren’t a lot of soldiers in my family background. My father’s a veteran–spent his time in Germany just after the end of the Korean war, an MP, who says his main task was patrolling pubs to make sure the white soldiers and black soldiers didn’t kill each other in drunken brawls. I just missed Vietnam. A great uncle was a highly decorated sailor in World War Two.That’s all.
But I’ve read. History is mostly about war, scripture is mostly about war, most popular entertainments deal with violence and war. We glorify it, even when we don’t intend to. And we study it, and should, because that’s the only way we’re going to end it. Study it, so we can put it behind us, along with witch hunts and inquisitions and pogroms.
On Memorial Day, we remember those who served. We honor their service. It’s altogether right and proper for us to do that. But the best way we can memorialize soldiers is to end war entirely. As Elder Uchtdorf put it recently: “Stop it.” Stop trying to dignify our momentary, transitory, ephemeral disputes with bloody human sacrifice. Stop trying to gain some foolish political advantage through the deaths of our best and brightest citizens. This. And this. And this, And this, this. . . .