Kansas City is the home of the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial. Filled with countless artifacts and insightful exhibits about the war, a visit to the museum will create a sense of both wonder and horror at the breadth of this military tragedy.
For those of you who are not history buffs and have long since forgotten the entangled web of events leading up to the war, it is worth noting the primary characteristic of the war: the Western Front, a trench of nearly 500 miles stretching beginning in Belgium and criss-crossing its way across a wide swath of France to end southeast of its starting point on the Swiss frontier. Germany’s initial sweeping victories of the war were thwarted by the Allied forces in 1914, causing German troops to begin the process of digging in. When Allied forces were unable to advance through these embedded troops, they too began to dig themselves in.
One of my favorite exhibits in the museum are dioramas of the trenches of the German, British and French soldiers. Amid the myriad of display cases filled with clothing and military equipment, these dioramas create a context for the war and the insurmountable human suffering that occurred there. And they provide a stark contrast between the conditions of the trenches for the soldiers of each of these countries as they become increasingly bleak down the line of the Front.
The Germans were the first to dig in and had the benefit of being on higher ground. Their trenches had wood planks lining the trench and may have even had wooden planks for floorboards. The British trenches were lined more with sandbags and a thicket of interwoven branches that created a basket weave mesh. The French trenches were haphazard with makeshift barriers against the walls of the trench: randomly placed sandbags, cloth, branches. A nightmare of mud and futility.
The violence of the war came from all directions: deafening and continuous shelling and gunfire, poison gas, trenchfoot (a disease caused by continuously standing in water), filth, and rats.
And mud. Mud so thick soldiers would become trapped in it. Drown in it.
There was no contingency plan, no way out of the trenches. The war was supposed to be short, but once forces had dug in the trenches there was no way to extricate themselves out.
“Trench warfare becomes necessary when two armies face a stalemate, with neither side able to advance and overtake the other….What began as a temporary strategy — or so the generals had thought — evolved into one of the main features of the war at the Western Front for the next four years.”
When I visited the WWI Museum I remember thinking, “This is what divorce looks like”. This is how it happens: there is an initial attack and opposing resistance, and then both sides start digging in. In its early stages, this digging in feels protective, even strategic. Just give yourself a little breathing space, hunker down and hide your vulnerabilities. It may not be as comfortable as what you are accustomed to, but it is not unbearable. Then as it progresses, as each side retreats into their trench rather than reaching across the space between them, the trenches become more disordered. Emotion overtakes rationality, reaction jumps ahead of planning, the interest and effort in developing contingency strategy dwindles. The more we dig and live in the trench, the more narrow our vision becomes.
And then comes the mud…and the rats.
Both of which will destabilize and erode any feeling of security and extinguish the light of future possibility. The only way out of this trench is to fight, to kill, and to be killed by the ensuing violence to come. Unless one of you is willing to raise the white flag and surrender for the sake of a more forgiving truce.
Marriage isn’t the only place in which this occurs. Anytime we feel the opposition to other people there is the potential for these types of isolationist tactics. It is hard for us to understand, when we want to protect ourselves through withdrawal and armor, that the outcome of these actions will not benefit us. We don’t gain security from hiding nor do we get greater stability from our static position. We cease to grown and instead become stunted by our own fear and resentment, which breeds like so much vermin in the trenches. The longer we stay in these positions, the weaker we become and the more suffering we endure. We do not celebrate the victory of new possibilities with another, but rather become entrenched in the stalemate which has far more destructive consequences.
(WWI quote above in italics taken from: http://history1900s.about.com/od/worldwari/a/Trenches-In-World-War-I.htm)