[D-G] Virility and Slaughter

Richard Koenigsberg, Ph. D. libraryofsocialscience at earthlink.net
Mon Jan 31 07:27:09 PST 2005

"A billion words; the endless chatter. Yet, at the core of civilization, a
deep pathology: The slaughter of young men." 
Richard A. Koenigsberg

In the First World War, 1914-1918, it is estimated that nine-million
soldiers were killed, twenty-one million wounded, and nearly eight million
taken prisoner or reported missing. Thus, of sixty-five million troops
mobilized, nearly thirty-eight million, or fifty- eight percent were
casualties. What was the meaning of this massive episode of civilizational
destruction? Why were millions of young men killed or mutilated? 
As one studies the battles of the First World War and learns of the
prodigious number of human beings killed in each of them, the mind boggles.
What was going on? What kept the war going? Why did leaders persist in
sending young men to die? Why didn't Generals alter their battle strategy
when it was evident that what they were doing did not work? Why did soldiers
rarely rebel against their fate? Why did they continue to fight on even
though death stared them in the face? 

The complete paper by Richard A. Koenigsberg is available for the first time
as an on-line publication.
To read: VIRILITY AND SLAUGHTER: Battle Strategy of the First World War
 <http://home.earthlink.net/~libraryofsocialscience/online_pubs.htm> PLEASE
CLICK HERE or visit:



The high casualty rate during this war reflected the nature of the battle
strategy. "Attack" occurred when massive numbers of troops along the front
line, supported by artillery fire from thousands of guns, got out of
trenches and ran into "no man's land," hoping to cut the barbed wire,
assault enemy trenches and break through the opposing line. Attacks were
nearly always unsuccessful. Here is Modris Eksteins' description of the
fundamental pattern: 

The victimized crowd of attackers in no man's land has become one of the
supreme images of this war. Attackers moved forward usually without seeking
cover and were mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a
scythe, like so many blades of grass. "We were very surprised to see them
walking," wrote a German machine gunner of his experience of a British
attack at the Somme. "The officers went in front. I noticed one of them
walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing, we just
had to load and reload. They went down in the hundreds. You didn't have to
aim, we just fired into them."

In the following report, British General Rees describes the massacre of his
own brigade as they moved toward German lines. 

They advanced in line after line, dressed as if on parade and not a man
shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine gun
and rifle fire that finally wiped them out. I saw the lines, which advanced
in such admirable order melting away under fire. Yet not a man wavered,
broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never seen, indeed could
never have imagined such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and
determination. The reports from the very few survivors of this marvelous
advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes: that hardly a man of ours got
to the German Front line.

It is evident that in spite of the total failure of the attack, General Rees
regarded the destruction of his brigade in a positive light. He observes
that not a man "shirked" in the face of the machine gun and rifle fire that
wiped them out. He is proud that even though his troops were "melting away
under fire," the soldiers continued to advance "in admirable order." In the
face of the barrage of bullets, his men did not waver, break ranks, or
attempt to come back. The General gushes that he had never seen such a
magnificent display of "gallantry, discipline and determination." Although
his soldiers were slaughtered and "hardly a man of ours got to the German
Front line," he characterizes the advance as "marvelous."
Or perhaps is it more accurate to say that the General believed the assault
was marvelous precisely because British soldiers had been slaughtered. The
General does not view the battle from the perspective of success or failure.
His perception is shaped, rather, by his judgment of the morale and spirit
demonstrated by his troops. It is the fact that his soldiers were being
riddled with bullets--yet continued to advance--that leads him to conclude
that the attack had been "marvelous." 
General Rees responded positively to the slaughter of his own men because he
viewed their behavior as a testimonial to the depth of their devotion. By
virtue of the fact that they did not shirk but continued to advance in the
face of machine-gun fire, his troops showed that they were committed
absolutely to the ideals of Great Britain, the British Empire and its
leaders. Willingness to walk into machine-gun fire provided definitive proof
that the soldiers loved their country.
Soldiers during the First World War were required to adopt a posture of
absolute submission to their nation and its leaders--obedience unto death.
Conscientious objectors in Britain during the First World War were
disenfranchised. Some thought that soldiers who had not seen overseas
service should have the right to vote taken away from them. In the First
World War, the social consensus was that the body of the soldier belonged to
the nation-state. The nation could use these bodies as it saw fit. 
War requires that the soldier hand over his body to his country. In order to
encourage men to do be willing to do this, the soldier's role is represented
in terms such as honor, masculinity and virility. In the First World War,
however, being honorable, masculine and virile was equivalent to entering a
situation where there was substantial probability that one would be
slaughtered. One demonstrated one's virility by getting out of a trench and
walking into machine gun fire. Such is the strange paradox of war: That
"goodness" or morality requires a posture of abject submission; that "love"
requires self- destruction; that willingness to die becomes the highest form
of virtue.

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