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The 20th-Century Abyss
Published on Monday, June 14, 2004 by
The Abyss
by Steven Laffoley

In July of 2003, I stood at the edge of a First World War battlefield near Verdun, France. I had traveled to this place in preparation for teaching a course in "Twentieth Century History" at a Canadian university.

Although the grass had grown thick over the years, and the trees grown tall (although ghostly and gaunt), the ground of the battlefield still undulated in frozen waves, like an ocean storm left to linger in a moment of time. In 1916, thousands and thousands of artillery shells chewed up what had been endless miles of rolling farmland to 10 meters deep: an ocean of mud and metal, blood and meat. Over its 10-month course, the Battle of Verdun consumed more than 700,000 people. In fact, on a warm day in June 1916, 100,000 people were slaughtered -- 4,000 people an hour, 70 people a minute, one person a second. The surviving soldiers -- whose words, scrawled in hand-written letters to home, cover the walls of a local museum -- spoke most strikingly of the fetid smells: feces, urine, gangrenous death all blowing back and forth on the winds across no man's land: that few hundred meters or so of mud and barbed wire between the opposing trenches.

Like any battle, the details were horrible, and finding meaning in horror is a fool's errand. And yet, I could not help but think that this battle -- the Battle of Verdun -- pretty much ushered in the 20th century. Before it, the world lived in an age when entire wars recorded their dead in hundreds, maybe thousands. But here, in this harbinger of the new century's progress, the Battle of Verdun snapped all connections to a long age of social, economic, and moral progress. Wars in this new century were all-consuming, efficient, killing machines.

To 19th-century minds -- to the minds of the soldiers who fought at Verdun, whose notions of battle were steeped in cavalry charges, soldiers' honor, and chivalry -- this descent into a firestorm of thick mud and flying metal was madness. Wave after wave of humans were ordered to climb the trench walls, again and again, to race out into no man's land, to offer their bodies to the spray of machine gun bullets -- human waves crashing into the mud shores to dissipate and be overtaken by the next wave and then the next.

A short walk from the battleground is a cemetery that rolls up a long hill, with rows of neat white crosses that seem to stretch out endlessly.

A few trees stand guard, while the wind blows. At the top of the hill, an enormous art deco memorial building -- a bunker with a single bullet-shaped tower -- stands in silent vigil: a work of modern art to recognize this new modern war and this new modern century.

After a time standing in dark contemplation, I mused that the First World War, the Great War, was now passing from living memory, save for those few aged souls, born in the century before, now marking time past their tenth decade. Verdun was the gateway to the 20th century: to mass-production murder (death squads and death camps); to unparalleled economic and social upheaval (great depressions, mass migrations, and globalization); to horrific diseases (AIDS, SARS, and cancers to fit every pollutant and vice); to world war sequels (hot and cold); to bombs (atomic, hydrogen, neutron, and smart); to millions of victims and victimizers and hundreds of millions murdered or left to die -- all at the hands of people.

Our collective living memory no longer encompasses a time when chaos was an abhorrent nightmare, a momentary dark spasm in the greater context of peace and civility. Instead, we now only remember and know a series of monsters attacking from all sides -- fascism, communism, corporate globalism, fundamentalism, terrorism -- each supplanting the next or coexisting with the other, none ever far away.

Some 18 months before my trip to Verdun, in March of 2002, I stood at the other edge of the 20th century, at Ground Zero in New York City, and I pondered what the terrorist attacks might have to say about the new century without realizing, at the time, that perhaps the place and the event also had something to say about the century just closed. The horrors of September 11 were an exhausted last gasp of the century we had just barely survived. Or did we?

In the 20th century, what horror did we not know? What moral line did we not cross? If you think I exaggerate, ask the Armenians about the Turks, the Jews and Gypsies about German fascists, the Cambodians about Pol Pot, the Bosnians and Rwandans about "ethnic cleansing."

"Civil liberties" and "human rights" are just dreamy 20th-century catch-phrases. Some people now talk comfortably about the "appropriate" use of torture. What about the "rights of man" on which the American nation was founded two centuries back? Or what about the Canadian commitment to universal human rights as we allow our citizens to be flown away and tortured for our "freedom"?

As we watch a 21st-century religious war taking shape -- the forces of fundamentalism (religious and otherwise) versus the forces of corporate globalism (and others) -- we need to ask ourselves: have we collectively forgotten to aspire to something greater: breathable air, drinkable water, edible food, safe communities? Or has our last century irrevocably divorced us from the living memory of community, morality, security, humanity, and simplicity?

Having stood on the edges of the 20th century -- one foot on a battlefield near Verdun, the other foot on the edge of the twin towers' chasm in New York -- I felt prepared to teach a course in the 20th century.

I now had a better sense of the space the century bridged: the 20th-century abyss.

Steven Laffoley is a school principal, teacher, and columnist for the Daily News in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. His e-mail address is:


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