In the springtime of 100 years ago, nations that shared a Christian heritage slaughtered one another over a few miles of mud. In just one battle, the great powers of Europe fought for more than a month outside this magnificently reconstructed medieval city, and suffered 280,000 casualties.
At the same time, French infantrymen began to mutiny after 200,000 of their young men fell — dead, wounded or missing — in another senseless grind of human flesh to the south.
All of that — the poisonous gas, the mowing down of teenage boys in ashen fields, the legless legions of the Lost Generation — is behind us. In its place, a century later, are cowards who kill children in the name of religious perversion.
Manchester, where the 22 died on Monday and more than 60 people were injured in the worst terrorist attack on British soil in more than a decade, would seem small by comparison. Some perspective is in order.
But every war is awful in its own way. Manchester was badly bombed during World War II. Those planes were under the command of Adolf Hitler, a corporal in France during World War I, who later reached deeper into the bowels of hell searching for more sophisticated forms of savagery.
The homemade bomb that killed those kids at a concert a few days ago — one victim was an 8 year old — packed a disproportionate amount of firepower. Old-fashioned war, as the saying goes, is diplomacy by other means. There’s a certain warped rationality to it.
What happened in Manchester is unexplainable. The Islamic State called the killer — identified as 22-year-old Salman Abedi, a British-born citizen of Libyan descent — a soldier. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Abedi was a psychopath — dispossessed in a tired part of England, perhaps, and warped by a toxic strain of Islam, but a psychopath nonetheless. The question of the moment is: Are there enough people like him to destabilize Europe? World War I, after all, started with the lone assassination of an obscure Balkan figure.
The child killers of modern Europe have no armies, no tanks or cannons at their disposal. They are stateless murderers plotting from failed-state ghettos like Libya. Their terror comes from the element of surprise, from turning a pop concert, a national holiday, a Christmas market, into its own peculiar Western Front. They bring an element of lethal menace to everyday life.
When you see the prosthetics on display at the Museum of the Great War in the Somme Valley town of Peronne — fake noses and eyes for faces scraped of their features by artillery — when you try to imagine 630,000 war widows in France in 1919, you can’t help but think that we have made progress of a sort.
After all, the Great War, as it was initially called, sucked up lives at rate of almost 50,000 a day at one point. The Germans committed atrocities against civilians in Belgium, and reduced the Cathedral of Arras to rubble. The soil of Northern France, pockmarked with war craters, is all one big burial ground for lost souls — the graveyards you see, 410 military cemeteries, and the graveyards you don’t see.
When the war ended, after 17 million deaths worldwide, a headline in Britain’s Daily Mirror proclaimed: “Democracy Triumphs Over the Last of the Autocrats.”
If only. Another hundred-year anniversary now marks the Russian Revolution — the collapse of the czar, power seized by the Bolsheviks, followed by decades of crimes against humanity committed by heartless and autocratic followers of Karl Marx.
The autocrats of modern terror seethe and plot in the shadows, and their control is limited to a handful of fellow child killers. Their design, such as it is, is to sweep away basic democratic values and put Europe in lockdown. Britain just raised its threat alert to the highest level, and the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, is seeking an extension of emergency powers for three more months.
No leader in Europe has shown Churchillian will or insight. Nor is anyone here looking to President Trump for guidance. The 70-year-old Innocent Abroad is trying to get through his first foreign trip without suffering from exhaustion brought on by reading his cue cards.
For something stirring, Trump could look to his own passport, and the words of John F. Kennedy embossed inside: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to ensure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Quaint words to Trump, and foreign, given his affinity for world leaders clamping down on liberty. Still, you never know when an acorn can find a blind pig.
And what exactly did Pope Francis tell him? Neither side is leaking. Francis is sly, though. He has enough sense of history to know that the wars of today could easily escalate into the wars of yesterday.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.