Last Thursday, I drove the 270 km to Ypres. I’d obviously been reading ongoing coverage of the 14-18 War, and the time had come to walk that land.
It was a terribly moving, disturbing, take-you-by-the-shoulders-and-shake-you visit. I didn’t know what to expect. And I certainly didn’t expect to be affected like this.
It’s a lovely area. Very gently rolling farmland, very typical tiny Belgian villages occupying the intersections of the roads crisscrossing the area. It was a largely sunny end-of-summer day. But then you look at the pictures OF THIS PLACE, from right where you’re standing, taken 100 years ago. Nothing alive except relics of men either trying to survive or to kill each other. Sinking into the mud waist high in the same places I walked so easily. How did the sun know not to shine then? Did it ever come out? Knowing what happened there, knowing what was underfoot made me feel like screaming, all day, everywhere.
Look at this picture:
That wooden structure about 75 metres distant, is a water slide, and that’s a theme park. 75 metres. Over three weeks, 5000 men, Brits and Germans, died between that water slide and where I stood to take that picture.
I thought I “understood” what it meant to “fight for one’s country”. I still might. But what I still cannot fathom is the courage of those men. They were there because they had to be there. Doing the right thing seems so . . . easy. Being here brings home that it ISN’T always easy to do the right thing. The weight of their sacrifice, those who went home and those who didn’t, still feels physically crushing to me.
Somewhere on one of his albums, Bruce Springsteen says something that I’ll never forget, and that I said over and over to myself Thursday:
Blind faith in your leaders will get you killed
Randomness kept jumping at me all day. The randomness of a shrapnel fragment killing the guy next to you, but not you. The randomness of the generals’ objectives, and of deciding that it was worth 5000 of your neighbours’ kids for 75 meters of mud.
Later, at the end of the day, the randomness of whose grave my eyes set upon, whose name, what age, assaulted me. Two thirds of the men buried here are unidentified. Row after row of blindingly white gravestones, and no names. One of their great grand-kids could come here, and stand in front of any grave, chosen . . . randomly . . . and pay his respects to great grand-dad.
I’m glad I went. I have no idea how people can live there. It’s testimony to human resilience, I know. But I’ll never go near that place ever again.
What an accumulation of horrors. And it’s so hard, amidst this bucolic scene, to take away the sun, to make the mind’s eye swap the rich farmer’s fields for no man’s land, the grass under foot for a mud made of equal parts of dirt, bone, blood, and metal. We can IMAGINE it, but can’t FEEL it. That enraged me.
We better think damned long and hard before we go asking our kids to die for something.
It better be worth it.