The new year brings the centenary commemoration of World War I in Europe, whose legacy reverberates through our history, policy and literature. From the peace experiments of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations to the tendentious borders of southeastern Europe and the Middle East, World War One continues to affect us in our every day. In its fratricidal horror it has become, in some sense, Europe’s civil war. To me its sound down the decades makes William Faulkner’s adage — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — all the more resonant and poignant.
While living in Belgium I was immediately struck how the legacy of the combat from that war, and the wars that followed, continued to lurk just beneath the topsoil. I visited Verdun, the site of a year-long Franco-German engagement in 1916 resulting in a million deaths. (Such casualty figures are almost impossible to imagine today, but just look at the Congo.) To achieve this death toll, the belligerents fired at least as many artillery rounds, and probably many more. The result is still plain on the battlefield, etched by communication trenches (see picture above): the landscape looks like a snapshot of the ocean during a storm, roiled by waves. The churned earth, now smooth, conceals the bodies of the dead and untold number of unexploded artillery rounds. Visitors are strongly advised to keep to the cleared and marked trails.
The village of Fleury-devant-Douamont was completely destroyed during the fighting. The cliche of wiping something “off the map” is too often bandied about in global affairs today. But in the case of Fleury and for many French communities during World War One, it is important to remember that the map is the only physical record left of them.
Back in Brussels, a bomb from World War II was excavated during the construction of the new NATO Headquarters complex across Boulevard Leopold III. (We were instructed to remain indoors while the bomb was detonated.) This was alarming but hardly surprising. The entire area had been commandeered by the Nazis as a military airfield during the war, so unexploded ordnance (UXO) — Allied and German — were bound to be left behind.
In fact, Belgium and Germany have some of the most active UXO disposal teams in the world working on their own soil. I’ve seen reported Belgium responds to more than 3,000 reported UXO cases a year. Germany has had four deaths in recent years trying to clear UXO from World War II. Japan is also very active disposing of UXO from the Pacific campaign. This is an awful legacy of both world wars just among our Allies. UXO from more recent conflicts, or conflicts among belligerents involving our proxies, or among countries that don’t involve us at all, implicate a far greater legacy.
I am deliberately avoiding the subject of landmines, which has attracted its own attention for all the appropriate reasons. I’ve also written previously about the legacy of chemical weapons dumped at sea. It seems to me, in the centenary of World War I — in a vastly changed world, with all the belligerents from that conflicts now partners, Allies and friends — that there is something important to be understood about the century-long legacy of that conflict, which is buried right at our feet. And that is: we shouldn’t have to cope with the same legacy, with our new friends, more than one hundred years hence.