Incommensurable Losses

Every so often I pop in my old audio tapes of Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence and, at the expense of sounding hopelessly nostalgic, it leaves me thinking that scholarship is not what it used to be. It reminds me of a few lines from Edward Said that I first came across via Alan Jacobs some time ago, although I no longer remember where exactly. Said, thinking of the humanistic scholars of the mid-twentieth century wrote:

“This is not to say that we should return to traditional philological and scholarly approaches to literature. No one is really educated to do that honestly anymore, for if you use Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer as your models you had better be familiar with eight or nine languages and most of the literatures written in them, as well as archival, editorial, semantic, and stylistic skills that disappeared in Europe at least two generations ago.”

In any case, this meandering all leads to a passage from Barzun with which I will leave you. It is a moving estimation of the losses occasioned by the First World War, a war the consequences of which I tend to think we underestimate. Here is Barzun:

“Varying estimates have been made of the losses that must be credited to the great illusion. Some say 10 million lives were snuffed out in the 52 months and double that number wounded. Others propose higher or lower figures. The exercise is pointless, because loss is a far wider category than death alone. The maimed, the tubercular, the incurables, the shell-shocked, the sorrowing, the driven mad, the suicides, the broken spirits, the destroyed careers, the budding geniuses plowed under, the missing births were losses, and they are incommensurable … One cannot pour all human and material resources into a fiery cauldron year after year and expect to resume normal life at the end of the prodigal enterprise.”

And so, to varying degrees, it must be with any war.

Technology, Men, and War

We are still learning more about World War II, and much of it is rather depressing.  Recently German researchers have published the transcripts of conversations among German soldiers held as POW’s.  The soldiers and airmen were secretly recorded by the Allies and their conversations offer a disturbingly honest glimpse of the war from the soldier’s perspective.  You can read about the transcripts in a Der Spiegel Online article, “Nazi War Crimes Described by German Soldiers.” Here is an excerpt that caught my attention:

Men love technology, a subject that enables them to quickly find common ground. Many of the conversations revolve around equipment, weapons, calibers and many variations on how the men “whacked,” “picked off” or “took out” other human beings.

The victim is merely the target, to be shot and destroyed — be it a ship, a building, a train or even a cyclist, a pedestrian or a woman pushing a baby carriage. Only in very few cases do the soldiers show remorse over the fate of innocent civilians, while empathy is almost completely absent from their conversations. “The victim in an empathic sense doesn’t appear in the accounts,” the authors conclude.

Be advised the content of the article is at points graphic and disturbing.