A Miracle of Parts
(a meditation on the Great War)
THE HUMAN ANATOMY is comprised of approximately two hundred six bones, six hundred fifty skeletal muscles, and fifteen feet of entrails. The human heart, beating roughly sixty times per minute, pumps eighteen hundred gallons of blood each day to the lungs, where not less than three hundred million alveoli manage the work of exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen. Over the past ten thousand years, the miracle we call the human body hasn’t changed much. Only the methods of killing it have.
Warfare famously produces innovation – the sword, the chariot, the longbow and gunpowder, to name a few. By the turn of the twentieth century, so adept had human beings become at dreaming up new and better ways to destroy each other that they’d devised cannon with a range of distance greater than their eyes’ ability to see and guns with a repeat faster than their legs’ ability to dodge and run. At sea, they’d built floating cities called dreadnoughts, which dwarfed even the greatest denizens of the deep.
Inevitably, the urge to try out this astounding weaponry would prove too strong to resist. Boys must have their toys, and then boys must play with them. Or else find me a better reason for the outbreak of armed conflict in 1914 among all the explanations of politics, economics, diplomacy, geography, personality and prejudice that have been put forth by legions of scholars.
I can’t think it matters to the soldier in the field whether he’s burnt to a crisp by flame-thrower or by a rain of boiling pitch. The pain, either way, would be unbearable. Nor whether his entrails be torn out by shot or by sword. What matters to him at that moment is that death come swiftly. If you take time to consider the ways a man’s body may be shattered, you’ll discover infinite possibilities for undoing miles of living tissue that life has arranged with such stunning variety and delicacy. Every war, though, engenders its special horrors, and the Great War more than most.
For one thing, it placed men below ground, where they cohabited year upon year with the creatures of the earth and became themselves creatures of the earth, crawling like maggots over the dead who had preceded them, emerging out of their holes into a featureless landscape of waste, rot and death. Other wars had taken place on greenswards, in cornfields, or at the battlements of great fortresses. Along the Western Front nothing grew except the piles of amputated limbs outside the postes and evacuation hospitals. Color leached out of the world. Trees were lopped-off stumps. Rats, sleek and fat, skittered across men’s water-logged legs, not bothering to slink either in the smoky gray light of day or the lurid, lit-up night. Occasionally, one of the men managed to crush a bold one with the blade of his shovel. But immediately ten more came to tear that one apart.
And the guns! Big guns, they were called, for they could reduce a town to rubble from sixty miles away. Their shells could dissolve a man, leaving no trace as if the fellow never existed. The guns could kill a man by concussive shock alone, whomp and he’s dead without the shell ever having touched him. By their horrifying persistent thunder, they could shatter a man’s mind. And no reliable method or means existed for overrunning a gun, or removing it, or destroying it, except by targeting it with big guns of your own.
Cannon fodder was an exquisitely appropriate term.
Taking it On the Chin
From my seat on the subway one evening recently, I happened to glance up at the man standing over me. Just under his chin was a pale, raised scar about half an inch long. Stitches: he must have fallen, bled and had stitches to close the wound. I know, because the same place on my own chin bears a scar just like it.
I looked around at the other passengers swaying inside the car as it hurtled toward 72nd St. I searched for the same mark, but none showed up in the cold, uneven light. Yet visible or not, I have no doubt that every one of those people had taken it on the chin a time or three in their lives. All of us fall on our faces, and the wonder is that we manage to patch ourselves up and keep on going. From time to time I’ve said that the books I write are about loss; but I think really they’re about the miracle of resilience in the face of loss – after we’ve taken it on the chin.
“Do you like Kipling?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never kippled.”
“Do you like Irving?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never Irved.”
“I’ve never lessed; though often I’ve mored.”
“How about Rowling?”
“Nope. Never rowled.”
“How do you feel about Browning?”
“Robert or Elizabeth B?”
“‘All poetry is difficult to read.’…Perhaps you’d prefer Suckling?”
“Mind you mouth!”
“Wouldn’t know. Never flemmed.”
“What, never even had a cold?”
“Do you favor Fielding?”
“Haven’t studied the art of fielding.”
“Well, hardly ever.”
“You must like Kidd.”
“Are you kidding me?”