This particular war was the first to be so heavily documented, and as a result the stark, brutal images of men dying in oceans of mud and filth have for many years represented the very worst of war in the western psyche; the very worst conditions that men could be expected to survive. This war has become synonymous with failings of strategy, tactics and leadership, with the reckless arrogance of class structure and the expendability of soldiers regarded as little more than statistics to be pushed around the generals' planning tables.
Whether the latter is accurate or not (it's still a matter of debate), the fact remains that millions died. Millions. One million of anything is hard to imagine. A million humans is a concept that is hard to grasp: there are few places in the world where so many people could even be seen in one place, and such gatherings are even more rare. Multiple millions of dead humans is an utterly impossible thing to imagine; and therein lies a problem which, I believe, leads us inevitably back to war again and again.
What I'm going to say now is unpleasant. We (as a society) don't care about soldiers dying - at least nowehere near enough. We don't care about (other countries') civilian casualties, either - at least, not enough. Not enough in either case to make sure that war is avoided or that it is at least the very final resort.
Why do I make this rather bold statement? Let's look around us; one hundred years after millions of young men went away with great excitement to the killing fields, the world remains a violent place. War is ongoing around the globe - small scale compared to the two largest conflicts in history, but cumulatively, war still affects a major proportion of the world's population. As a species, we still go to war with remarkably little thought for the consequences. The consequences predominantly, of course, are many, many deaths. Deaths of soldiers, civilians, women, children and babies, the destruction of property and livelihoods, resources and economies are what war is about. If you think anything else, you're kidding yourself. War is about destruction.
We still do this; us, the dominantly intelligent species that has so remarkably made its mark upon the planet. We kill one another because we have yet to rise above the notion of wanting more than we can reasonably expect. We kill because we can. We kill - and here's the rub - because we pay people to kill on our behalf, and we call them soldiers. And we don't care enough about the consequences.
In 1914 the young men that set off for the battlefields of Belgium and France did so with naïve excitement and expectations of glory; it was all going to be a wonderful adventure. Later in the war it became less of a jaunt and more of a duty, but the supply of humans prepared to do as they were told and kill or be killed never wavered. Amazingly, the same still happens today. In 1914 those young men could have no idea of what they faced in their immediate future. The typical 18 or 19-year old soldier had never seen war before. They had no way to predict the horrors that would befall them. They were, essentially, innocents fed into the meat grinding machine of the battlefield.
Knowing now what we do about the two major World Wars, how is it, then, that nations still send their young men (and in some cases; women) into conflict situations in order to exert political influence and power? Firstly, most politicians are NOT former soldiers, and so know nothing of the real nature of war. They speak nobly of honour, principle and duty and ignore the inevitable human costs of such reckless ventures. The voters - here is where the real responsiblility lies - support such moves, support the troops (because that, apparently is the patriotic thing to do) in their task, and re-elect the men and women who sent those young people into danger. We - the voters - are ultimately to blame.
We're ably assisted in our role by the mainstream media which, night after night, despite passionate, appalled commentary upon the events, consistently and deliberately shields us from the truth of war. Images deemed too graphic for us to see are edited and deleted, never to be seen again. The reality is hidden from us to protect our sensibilities - after all, upsetting the paying public might lead to a drop-off in funding - and so the vast majority of us never, ever get to understand the grim, unimaginable reality of war. We remain gratefully unaware of the genuine horror, and this allows us to support our governors when they send our young people away to kill and be killed.
No bloodied bodies for us, no dismembered corpses, no shots of real people being killed for REAL, no shocking images of body parts, dead children and old people; no evidence of atrocities placed before us lest it becomes too uncomfortable and ruins our cosy evening around the TV set. In the meantime we sit and allow the brutality of war to continue out of sight and hopefully out of mind. Knowing that it's probably happening isn't the same as seeing it happen, and so we can carry on, sending them to war, to kill or be killed; to destroy or be destroyed.
It's easy isn't it? Armies go to war and populations feel proud of their armies, especially if they win. While we are all so removed from the reality of combat, corpses and collateral damage, war is something someone else does and that someone else suffers. While war is remote (drones, anyone?), war is very easy to sustain and promote. My parents, however, knew what it was like to have bombs fall around them, knew what war actually looked like and felt like. They knew that war was horror, death and destruction, and they passed that knowledge down to me. They knew that war wasn't like a John Wayne movie where you either got shot in the leg, shoulder or belly, where people died with a graceful fall, and lay with their eyes pleasantly closed in death. No bleeding out from the genital area, no missing faces, no entrails cradled during increasingly desperate final breaths.
Today, as many of us reflect upon the appalling sacrifices that a generation made between 1914-1918, perhaps we could include in our thoughts that we as societies don't know enough, and we don't as nations care enough about the people we send to kill or be killed, or the people on the other side of whatever issue waiting for them. Censorship of war needs to stop; show us the reality so that our politicians can no longer hide behind our own ignorance, so that we in democratic countries migh tactually hold politicians to account for sacrificing people that they car elittle or nothing about.
Educate yourself about war: view the unpleasant war images, because they are the truth.