Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 22, 2008
In Aspen last week, a group of local Shakespeare aficionados held a seminar on the play “Troilus and Cressida.” This tragicomedy takes place on the battlefield at Troy, where romance entangles characters in deceits and betrayals. The Trojan War, however, is mocked as the ultimate folly since it is being waged for the sake of a silly flirt named Helen.
When someone opined that this is one of Shakespeare’s lesser works, seminar moderator and Shakespeare scholar Ken Adelman argued that the play has great merit, mainly because of its stance on war. By using Helen as an absurd rationale for a costly siege, Shakespeare impugns the heroic myth of war.
Adelman, who worked in arms control during the Reagan administration, referred to a recent article about World War I deserters being honored posthumously for their refusal to fight at Ypres, where more than 300 British soldiers, some of them Canadians, were executed by firing squads. The French executed as many as 700 on the same grounds.
“Nobody really knew why they were fighting that war,” said Adelman, “which is how Shakespeare characterized the Battle of Troy.”
The First Battle of Ypres was in 1914. The Germans called it “The Massacre of the Innocents” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Massacre_of_the_Innocents) (Kindermord bei Ypern) because eight German units consisting of young, idealistic volunteers were slaughtered during a failed attack on a smaller but highly experienced British force. More than 120,000 soldiers lost their lives on both sides.
The Second Battle of Ypres, in 1915, had the distinction of introducing poison gas to the battlefield when the German Army (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Army_(German_Empire)) released 168 tons of chlorine gas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlorine_gas) over a four-mile front held by French (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki /France), Moroccan and Algerian troops. Six thousand of them died within 10 minutes, and many more were blinded. Chlorine gas, being denser than air, filled the trenches (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trench_warfare), forcing troops to climb out into heavy fire. The Allies counted 70,000 dead, wounded or missing. Germany suffered 35,000 casualties.
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The Third Battle of Ypres, in 1917, was a staggering Pyrrhic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrrhic_victory) victory for the Allies, who won a patch of ground at the cost of more than 500,000 men, to Germany’s loss of 350,000. Just four months later, the Allies abandoned to the Germans every inch of that bloody ground. At Ypres, in four horrific years, more than a million soldiers were killed.
Is it any wonder that men witnessing such slaughter would resist the fight? And yet their commanders condemned them as cowards, ordered them tied to poles, and had them shot. One historian says it was “for the sake of an example … as a form of mental coercion.” It was discovered later that some of the executed were shell-shocked.
In the late 1990s, a small but impassioned movement started in Britain to honor these deserters, not as heroes, but as victims of insane carnage. This led in 2001 to a monument erected in England and to a parliamentary posthumous pardon in 2006.
Today, five miles from Ypres, in the village of Poperinge, the Flanders Field Museum has opened an exhibit that amends the heroic myth of battle and describes instead its sorrow through the eyes of deserters. Wrote Kipling: “I could not look on death, which being known, men led me to him, blindfold and alone.”
As we enter the Christmas season, I’m reminded of the emotive story “Silent Night,” in which German and British soldiers called an impromptu truce and celebrated Christmas together on a section of the Western Front. Their commanders threatened to shoot anyone fraternizing with the enemy, and the day after Christmas the mayhem resumed.
Many WWI soldiers were boys who lied about their ages so they could partake in the glory of war. By honoring deserters, such coveted glory bears a taint. “They [the deserters] emphasized the pity of war, rather than its nobility,” suggested one observer. “There were only losers in this war.”
It is time to honor those who refused to fight, those who died in their refusal, those frightened boys who were appalled by the gore that is sadly still part of our world and has been since the Battle of Troy. Today, as the United States wages two wars, consider the Christmas benediction: “Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”