Harry Patch, the United Kingdom’s last surviving infantryman from World War One, passed away at the age of 111. He was apparently something of a national icon – the UK Poet Laureate even wrote a poem about him. Today, the AP quoted the following statements of condolence from British dignitaries:
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the whole country would mourn “the passing of a great man.”
“The noblest of all the generations has left us, but they will never be forgotten. We say today with still greater force, We Will Remember Them,” Brown said.
Queen Elizabeth II said “we will never forget the bravery and enormous sacrifice of his generation.” Prince Charles said “nothing could give me greater pride” than paying tribute to Patch.
“The Great War is a chapter in our history we must never forget, so many sacrifices were made, so many young lives lost,” the prince said.
There’s some irony at work in this. Mr. Patch, who didn’t start talking about his experiences until he was 100 years old, described himself as a reluctant and frightened combatant who saw the war as a tremendous waste. Meanwhile, historians increasingly see the ineptitude of political institutions and leadership as the primary cause of the conflict. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker in 2004:
You could not have chosen a worse bunch of guys [in 1914] to have the fate of Europe in their hands. There is Kaiser Wilhelm, the deformed lesser member of the dominant royal family of Europe, intensely jealous of his cousin Edward VII and his Francophile ways (although Edward had died by 1910, the icon still shone), and determined to act in a manly and warriorlike way, yet caught in a bizarre cycle of peevishness, belligerent insecurity, and a superstitious fatalism that he thought of as “religious.” There is Count Conrad, who genuinely seems to have acted in part because he was in love with a married woman and imagined that success in war would help his romance. Even Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister, who for some reason gets off very lightly in British histories, seems hopelessly inadequate to the occasion.
Gopnik allows for the fact that WWI would prove a novel and harsh learning experience for military and political leaders, who could not foresee all of the battle field consequences that industrial technology would bring about:
…the previous century had been filled with wars, and none of them left behind much more than a scar and a memory of honor. The worst recent war in Europe, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, had made a deep imprint on the French psyche, but it was immediately followed by the decade that resides in our imagination—courtesy of the Impressionists, but courtesy of the facts, too—as idyllic. How bad could a war be? The Germans thought that, more or less, it would be like 1870; the French thought that, with the help of the English, it wouldn’t be like 1870; the English thought that it would be like a modernized 1814, a continental war with decisive interference by Britain’s professional military; and the Russians thought that it couldn’t be worse than just sitting there.
He also points out that some of the primary actors were driven by some primal human desires:
Above all, the tragedy was that their goal was not to look weak. Even in Strachan’s dry and unemotional narrative, one wet and emotive word rings out again and again, and that word is “humiliation.” The game was not to prevail—for all the players, save perhaps some of the Germans, knew that none of them could—but to avoid being seen as the loser. There are, in the recorded words, few references to rational war aims, even of the debased, acquisitive kind; instead, you find a relentless emphasis on shame and face, position and credibility, perception of weakness and fear of ridicule. “This time I shall not give in,” Kaiser Wilhelm repeated robotically (to the arms manufacturer Krupp) in July of 1914. Lloyd George, on the British side, a key actor in favor of war, called for the mobilization of a million men lest Britain not be “taken seriously” in the councils of Europe. It was not runaway trains but a fear of being humbled, “reduced to a second-rate power,” that drove the war forward. The keynote is insecurity, an insecurity that arose, above all, from the German paranoia about encirclement, matched by Britain’s insecurity about its naval power.
A few observations:
First, the desire for humiliation — and its opposite objective, saving face — may be what human individuals and/or societies had been selectively adapted to entering the 20th century. In fact, the Armistice at the end of the war fully embodied the desire to further hobble and humiliate the vanquished. John Maynard Keynes presciently warned the world of its likely consequences, including a second great war. What’s interesting is that in the Second World War, military aims became more about strategic objectives, and Allied leadership did not try to impose quite the same measure of humiliation that their forbears in WWI had. Interestingly — and despite the cultural popularity of martial ideals and practices in business (e.g., The Art of War) — the major players in WWI and WWII seem to have moved a bit beyond the primal motivations of saving face and avoiding humiliation — whereas they continue to play a strong role in most parts of the world. Perhaps the First World War was a crucible for this? These cross currents are alive and well in international business, e.g., in individuals/institutions vs kin/clan traditions (of course, as interesting as these seeming contrasts are, human beings are alike in more respects than they are different, and we all move through backgrounds, however varied, in which individuality, institutions, family, and friends all play important roles).
Second, Gopnik’s and modern historians’ descriptions of WWI are excellent examples of a “complex foresight horizon“. World War One must indeed have been a “world of emergence, perpetual novelty, and ambiguity” for all involved, whether in palaces, parliaments, trenches, or manning a hearth. Gopnik provides the figure that 260,000 French were killed in the first 26 days — that’s the mind boggling equivalent of more than three 9/11 attacks per day occurring for twenty six straight days! If political and military leaders — and populations at large, as Gopnik aptly points out — had known the calculus beforehand, perhaps they would have shown more modesty. Still, the failures of leadership from 1914 through 1918 (and in many other incidents of political economy in the 20th century) are striking, and not easy to forgive. Perhaps it’s inescapable that people in positions of power will always struggle with the choice between the primal motivation to save face versus the more courageous act of speaking candidly and openly with constituencies (their own and their opponents’), and with the many ethical dilemmas and challenges of wielding power. Hopefully, institutional learning will continue apace.
Meanwhile, strong leadership traits can be heard in the words of the gentleman in question:
At a remembrance ceremony in 2007, Patch said…”Today is not for me. It is for the countless millions who did not come home with their lives intact. They are the heroes,” he said. “It is also important we remember those who lost their lives on both sides.”
The AP article also pointed out that Patch outlived three wives and his two sons — a burden that we probably don’t think about when wishing to live to a ripe old age.
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