Echoes of Our Great War

When describing the state of American politics today, pundits have often turned to the phrase: “partisan trench warfare.” Martial metaphors of all kinds are ubiquitous in our political commentary, but this one stuck in my head. And so, as we commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day on Sunday and the ending of an earlier generation’s Great War, allow me the liberty to draw out the metaphor and see what it has to offer us other than a vivid suggestion of awfulness.

Perhaps the most terrible feature of the trenches was their seeming permanence. As Paul Fussell tells us in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), over the whole course of the war most of the trenches moved just a few hundred yards, or at most a few miles. “London stationers purveying maps felt secure in stocking sheets of ‘The Western Front’ with a thick wavy black line drawn from North to South alongside which was printed ‘British Line.’” Such a great cost for so little in return.

The great frustration of our politics today, is similarly, their fixity. The outpouring of spite, one side to the other, is immense, and yet what really changes? Actual policy shifts little, or not at all. And, whatever the latest election results are, we never really seem to move past anything.

The temptation to nevertheless find meaning in a fight like this is nearly irresistible. After all, a fight we have given so much to cannot just be a waste—can it? And so we reach for the language of earlier, more heroic conflicts. Fussell quotes the writer Esmé Wingfield-Stratford: “A vast literature has been produced in the attempt to bring [the Great War] into line with other wars by highlighting its so-called battles by such impressive names as Loos, Verdun, the Somme, and Paschendaele…” Fussell comments: “This is to try to suggest that these events parallel Blenheim and Waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning.” Whereas, in reality, the field at Passchendaele was turned by British artillery into nearly-freezing mud, in which thousands of British soldiers would drown in late 1917. In contrast to the discrete battles of earlier campaigns, many other battles in the Great War were merely bloodier moments in an ongoing grind of violence across the front. The facts on the ground made a mockery of earlier ideals of honor and bravery.

In our politics, we similarly long to discern heroic figures enacting great deeds. We sometimes act as if the annual fight over federal spending represents a fight for the soul of our modern civilization. What is really at stake is nothing more than whether to deviate from last year’s discretionary spending baseline by 1 percent or 3 (even as we merrily rack up trillions in debt). We lack the courage to face up to the enormity of the soul-crushing, enervating standoff we are stuck in, or to speak honestly about our alienation from our earlier ideals of self-government and genuine political agency. Drowning in near-freezing mud sounds about right.

The actual experience of being in the trenches has a familiar ring to it, too. “To be in the trenches was to experience an unreal, unforgettable enclosure and constraint, as well as a sense of being unoriented and lost.” To be a player in our own political trenches today is to feel narrowly constrained to a prepared script; to feel trapped. At the same time, because the script is so rigid and unadapting to new problems, to stay on script is to feel lost, consigned to irrelevancy and impotence.

Nevertheless, the generals manage to get a sympathetic press to believe that the time for breaking through the enemy lines is immanent. The soldier’s perception of this talking point is bitterly ironic: “The whole conduct of our trench warfare seemed to be based on the concept that we, the British, were not stopping in the trenches for long, but were tarrying awhile on the way to Berlin and that very soon we would be chasing Jerry across the country.” With a dynamic, satisfying race for the ultimate goal near at hand, there was no need to invest in the trenches, and the ordinary soldiers stuck there suffered in conditions that were “wet, cold, smelly, and thoroughly squalid.” (Incidentally, the Germans were much more far-sighted on this front.)

In our time, each side acts as if it will be firmly in command of the country’s destiny just after the next election—it is always the next election, regardless of the political configuration. Since the good guys’ mastery is coming, there is no need to worry much about incrementally improving the status quo in the bitterly contested present. Indeed, doing so is probably a sign of squishiness, insufficient resolve, and complacency.

When—surprise!—the last election turns out not to put one side firmly in control of all of the levers of politics, it is back to the grind of the perpetual war. The Great War, too, seemed likely to those experiencing it to become part of the scenery. “The stalemate and the attrition would go on infinitely, becoming, like the telephone and the internal combustion engine, a part of the accepted atmosphere of the modern experience. Why indeed not, given the palpable irrationality of the new world? Why not, given the vociferous contempt with which peace plans were received by the patriotic majorities on both sides?” As Alfred Blunden put it: “Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning.”

How was the senselessness of trench warfare ever ended? There were moments of hope that ingenuity could show the way out. In June 1917, British miners dug 100 feet under the German trenches and packed them with high explosive. They successfully detonated them, killing thousands and panicking many more, such that British could take Vimy Ridge with relatively few casualties. But while tunnel warfare became widespread, it ultimately proved too slow and costly to end the stalemate at the front.

Our own political innovators sometimes find ways to set our politics aflame for a time, and it’s often tempting to think that they are on the verge of reorganizing our whole political conflict. Certainly, this is how many of his supporters have seen Donald Trump, especially during his endlessly surprising candidacy in 2016. But digging the tunnels is hard work, and setting up the detonators properly takes some real care. As Peter Thiel (in)famously observed: “Everyone says Trump is going to change everything way too much. Well, maybe Trump is going to change everything way too little. That seems like the much more plausible risk to me.” For all that it seems that politics today are nastier than ever, it isn’t clear whether we can really expect any big movement in the lines.

Ending the Great War one-hundred years ago took fully two revolutions. The generals never found a way out, but instead had to be undermined by populations who had simply had enough of their style of conflict and were willing to take to the barricades in pursuit of something different.

It is hard to know if our own Great War will end similarly. We may be deeply thankful that the body count of our political trench warfare is very low, for now. (Though we no longer have the luxury of saying that it is completely metaphorical.) And it cannot be doubted that plenty of people on both sides take a sporting joy in our conflict as it is currently constructed. For all that, there are an awful lot of Americans fed up with the way things are. Perhaps they will make a revolution before long.

Then again, let’s be careful what we wish for. After all, those revolutions in Russia and Germany didn’t work out so well. And the next war turned out to be even more brutal than the Great one.