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July 15, 2004

dulce et decorum est

Last week in Burgundy, we noticed that every single town had erected a stone cross with the names of its dead from 1914-18 and 1939-45. Even a village of 50 people (according to our Michelin guide) might list a half dozen killed. A few names were marked “déporté”—taken east to die in slave labor or death camps. Overall, France lost 1,368,000 men in the First World War and 563,000 people (civilians and combatants) in the Second. That counts only the dead, not those grievously wounded, psychologically broken, widowed, orphaned, or deprived of young sons. France lost 11 percent of its entire population in the Great War, compared to a death rate of 0.37% in the United States. Even in World War II, the French lost twice as many people as we did, out of a much smaller population.

And then I think of the people, my fellow Americans, who claimed that France opposed our invasion of Iraq because they lacked the courage for war; the French were “surrender monkeys,” in the phrase that certain hawks borrowed from “The Simpsons.” These people remind me of the ones Siegfried Sassoon described in “Base Details”:

IF I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:39 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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