Saturday, May 23, 2009

War And Remembrance for Memorial Day Weekend

We forget just how violent and costly were Napoleon's wars. We mostly remember the glamor and the swagger. We are surprised when we learn that the Napoleonic Wars were the costliest in terms of lives before World War I. We forget that millions perished in those wars.

The Battle of Eylau in the former East Prussia was one of the bloodiest of Napoleon's battles. It came about because of Russian challenges to French claims upon German territory. The losses were catastrophic and impossible to conceal from the French public.
Napoleon commissioned Antoine-Jean Gros, the most brilliant of his propaganda artists, to make an immense painting of the aftermath of the battle. Gros, with Napoleon's encouragement, very candidly shows us the cost of the battle. This painting is filled with corpses. Not only is there the brilliantly painted pile of dead and dying soldiers in the foreground, the snowy battlefield in the background is shown littered with dead soldiers from end to end. In the background, surviving French soldiers form up to salute the emperor.
Gros shows Napoleon riding out to assess the battlefield losses with his generals. Gros very brilliantly shows Napoleon not as his usual glamorous swaggering self, but as plainly dressed, pale, red-eyed, unshaven -- clearly shaken by the magnitude of the losses. The very elaborately uniformed and dashing General Murat riding up to greet him only enhances Napoleon's own solemnity. Napoleon looks up heavenward and says accurately (if self-servingly) that such losses should make rulers less eager to go to war.

Gros' career came and went with Napoleon. He was the finest of Napoleon's artists, a brilliant propagandist. And yet, Gros was very troubled by the role he played in Napoleon's campaigns. Gros personally witnessed some of Napoleon's battles, most notably his brilliant come-from-behind victory at Arcole in the First Italian Campaign. Gros' own very ambivalent feelings come out in the brilliantly painted and grisly pile of corpses that fills the foreground of this picture. Those ambivalent feelings would be the death of Gros. After the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Gros' career went into eclipse. He refused to work for the Bourbon Restoration government. Remorse over his role in Napoleon's empire haunted him for the rest of his life. He drowned himself in the Seine in 1830.

The great Spanish artist Goya made a stinging rebuke to Gros in the print above from The Disasters of War very bitterly titled "This Is What You Were Born For!" A man confronts a pile of corpses (like the one in Gros' painting) and vomits at the sight and the smell.
Scholars argue whether or not Goya actually witnessed any of the horrific scenes from the Penninsular War that appear in this series of etchings that he apparently worked on in secret. They were not published until 1863, about 35 years after Goya's death. That this question even comes up at all is testament to Goya's brilliance as an artist. Contrived or not, they have that veristic quality of wartime journalism.

The combatants in Goya's scenes of battle are less driven by courageous self-sacrifice than by rage and desperation. Here, a group of women, some with babies in arms, defend themselves against French soldiers.

Goya's own role in the French occupation of Spain, and in the resulting Penninsular War was hardly more creditable than Gros. Goya, like Talleyrand, was a survivor in the worst possible way. He was court painter to Carlos IV, and then worked for Joseph Bonaparte when he briefly reigned as King of Spain. With great difficulty, Goya had to prove his loyalty and his Spanish patriotism when the French were driven out of Spain by a coalition of Spanish patriots and British soldiers led by the Duke of Wellington. Even though he painted Wellington's portrait, and went to work for King Ferdinand VII, the paranoid new king always regarded Goya with great suspicion.

Where Goya's real sympathies and loyalties lay is revealed in the horrific print below.

Goya shows us the naked corpse of a man who died in great agony and humiliation. We have no clue as to this man's allegiances. Was he a Spanish partisan tortured to death by the French? Or was he a hapless French soldier killed by an angry Spanish mob? We have no idea, and Goya asks us rhetorically if it really matters.

In this etching, one of a series of allegories at the end of The Disasters of War where Goya tries to make sense of the carnage, a group of wretched war refugees is confronted by a wolf who has just written this line from a poem by the Italian poet Giambattista Casti, "Miserable humanity, the blame is yours" That line is lifted from a poem that reads in part:
But so long as there are people in this world who can sacrifice thousands of victims, and spill other men's blood, just how, when, and in what quantity they please, without running any risk themselves, enslaved humanity, do not complain of their barbarity for the blame is yours.

It is likely that Goya endorses Casti's indictment of passive ordinary humanity for complicity in their own victimization.

I can't agree, and I wonder if Goya, disappointed young liberal that he was and bitter old misanthrope that he became, really believed that sentiment as well.

I am not a pacifist. In desperate situations, I believe people are entitled to defend themselves by any means necessary. But, I'm no militarist either. Clausewitz famously said that war is politics by other means. On the contrary, war is the failure of politics. It is the betrayal of the young by the old. It is the betrayal of people by their leaders. The resort to violence is always evidence of failure and weakness. For this reason, the rhetoric of war dresses it up in a masquerade of success and strength. "Military glory," said Abraham Lincoln on the floor of the House when he opposed the American invasion of Mexico, "is the rainbow in a shower of blood."

I remember listening to a radio conversation with a World War II historian whose name I can't remember.  He was talking about the morally very dubious policies of the Allies, especially their attacks on civilians, from the saturation bombings of German and Japanese cities to the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He said that those policies were counter-productive; that they only prolonged the conflict by making targeted civilians more angry and determined to resist.  He questioned the idea that anyone covered themselves in glory by dropping everything from incendiary bombs to nuclear weapons on unarmed civilians.  He argued that such policies were driven, not by rational strategic thinking, but by rage and a desire for revenge for German and Japanese aggression and atrocities.  He concluded by saying that, despite all of this, Hitler had to be stopped.  A Nazi victory would have been the end of civilization just as surely as a nuclear holocaust.  He said that we fight our wars the same way we live our lives, not as we should, but as we can.

Perhaps war is the ultimate manifestation of our fallen state, the final consequence of the fact that we all live our lives, not as we should, but as we can.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we commemorate our war dead with great solemnity. It is right and proper that those who gave their lives in the service of all the rest of us should be remembered and revered. Whether the cause was just or not, they paid the full cost of it.

I think it proper that not only do we remember our soldier dead, but all those who bore the full cost of history from civilian dead caught up in the crossfire of our battles, to soldiers killed by "friendly fire," to soldiers killed by accidents and crime, to victims of war crimes, to the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilian dead in the current conflicts.


it's margaret said...

A parishioner at the parish I serve is 96 and was RAF --flew 36 missions, was sent to Canada and trained as an elite bombing navigator and helped usher in the planes over Germany... he eventually flew 66 wartime missions... one of very few who survived.

He recently wrote an article for a national publication, stating how much he regretted having done that, and how wrong the way we do war is because even the very best are inaccurate far too often.

He became a doctor hoping to compensate for the damage he had done....

Your post resonates with what he said...

thank you Doug.

Counterlight said...

Thank you Margaret, that is very gratifying.

it's margaret said...

and Goya always takes my breath away by the way... Doug, I will be posting excerpts of his article tomorrow, Memorial Day. You inspired me to do so.

many blessings.

Counterlight said...

Excerpt away!

JCF said...

On that note:

for the past week, I keep hearing how the government (army) of Sri Lanka "defeated the Tamil Tigers".

Maybe a particular iteration of the Tamils' armed resistance has been functionally destroyed but, in 2009, does ANYONE believe that a war can really be ended by one side "winning" it, militarily? Come on! That's 20th Century thinking---we know better than that, now.

Wars can ONLY be ended through actual peace. The "military victory" is an ILLUSION. [I hope to GOD that Obama gets that, re Afghanistan!]

Counterlight said...

"... in 2009, does ANYONE believe that a war can really be ended by one side "winning" it, militarily?"

I've felt the same way about the Middle East conflict. If Israel "wins" and all the Palestinians are dumped over the Jordan river, or, if the Palestinians "win" and all the Jews are driven into the Mediterranean, does anyone really believe that the conflict would be ended?
It would only move into another phase, and continue.

I'm certain that the same will be true with the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The underlying grievance remains; a group of people brought in by the former colonial government as cheap labor are now an indigenous population. The native population can't figure out what to do about it, and feels threatened.

This particular drama is playing itself out all over the world. See Toujourdan's excellent reflection on the conflict in Fiji at his blog Culture Choc.