I just finished reading a gripping book. Normally I read books very quickly. This one I could not. I knew some men who fought in World War I. The “war to end all wars” was not the glamorous new era, but a continuation of the reality of sin, and the depravity of humans.
Groom, Winston. A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. Grove Press, 2003.
Powerful book, well written, worthy to be read by everyone.
Groom provides an overview of the conduct of the war regarding Flanders, such that the reader gains an appreciation of all factors weighting upon decisions that at times seem brilliant, more often idiotic, and usually puzzling. The ranking officers in the British Army had their own agendas and battled the political leaders (especially Gen. Haig vs. David Lloyd George). In addition, Groom adds the view from the trenches that shows the heroism, despair, and futility of fighting in the trenches. The contrast between what the Generals knew and what the men experienced comes through in this perspective from General Haig’s chief of staff after the battle of Passchendaele (in 1917).
The day that Passchendaele fell, Haig’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Launcelot Kiggell, went forward to see the battle area for the first time. Nearing Ypres in his big Rolls-Royce staff car Kiggell was first amazed, then dismayed, and finally horrified at the breathtaking morass where the battle had taken place: an almost indescribable sea of mud littered with the bloated, rotten carcasses of artillery horses, smashed guns and wagons, and other detritus of war. He is reported to have broken into tears, crying out, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” His companion, an officer who had been in the battle, told Kiggell, “It’s worse further on up.” (pp. 224-5)
The brutality of war comes through as the mud intensified the drudgery of daily life. And in this case brought horrendous choices.
One sergeant related: “We heard screaming coming from another crater a bit away. I went over to investigate with a couple of the lads. It was a big hole and there was a fellow of the 8th Suffolks in it up to his shoulders. So I said, ‘Get your rifles, one man in the middle to stretch them out, make a chain and let him get hold of it.’ But it was no use. It was too far to stretch, we couldn’t get any force on it, and the more we pulled and the more he struggled the further he seemed to go down. He went down gradually. He kept begging us to shoot him. But we couldn’t shoot him. Who could shoot him? We stayed with him, watching him go down in the mud. And he died. He wasn’t the only one. There must have been thousands up there who died in the mud.” (pp. 214-5)
The ghastly image cuts through any civility that anyone tried to put on the war and the consequences.
Ugly, Harsh Realities of Life
This is a hard book to read, but a necessary read. We get immune to the ugly, harsh realities of life, if we only watch what we want on TV/internet, etc. This book opens our eyes at several levels to challenge the status quo of indifference.
The longer I read the book, the more I realized that it has a present application. We have a sanitized view of life. Are we indifferent to the sufferings of many? Perhaps more than we want to admit. What about the indifference 20 years ago in the Balkans? It got to be old news, except for sensationalism.
Human trafficking is a huge worldwide problem, millions of people caught in it. And yet, for many in the US, unless it is a family member or friend who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, it is not “real.” “Not my problem.” “Do we have to talk about such unpleasantness?”
In the abortion struggle, those who cover their eyes think that Gosnell and others are being treated unfairly. Yet, the hideous reality is that babies are being murdered. No, not just 12 week old infants in the womb, but babies, living, breathing. The mantra of “right of the mother to her body” has changed to “right of a doctor to murder.”
An Ugly Answer
Obviously, the litany of horror has marked humanity since Genesis 4. But it doesn’t end with that. Jesus’ death, for some first graphically portrayed in the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” brings to light the cost of paying the penalty for sin. And Jesus died for all people, even those indifferent to suffering, and those causing the suffering, and even me. As John wrote in his first letter:
He is the payment for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2 GW)
The answer to suffering is the suffering of Jesus, the answer to death is the death of Jesus, the answer to despair is the raising of Jesus back to life.
So, back to the book. I hope that as a Christian with the message of life, I am not like General Kiggell. And yet sometimes I am like him. I don’t want to be in the shell hole watching someone die because there is nothing to be done. But sometimes I am. And I seek forgiveness.
I also pray that my heart never becomes indifferent to the sad consequences of sin in this life. Jesus came to bring life and it abundantly.