They say the last sip of a drink is mostly backwash. The last understanding of a war should be that every speck of it is backwash in the sense used by Ellen N. La Motte in her 1916 book The Backwash of War. La Motte was a U.S. nurse who worked at a French hospital in Belgium not far from a semi-permanent front line at which men slaughtered each other for no discernable purpose for months on end, and the mangled bodies from one side, plus the occasional civilian, were brought into the hospital to die or to be kept alive and — if possible — patched up and sent back into it, or, in some cases, patched back together well enough to be shot for desertion.
La Motte, whose book (newly republished and introduced by Cynthia Wachtell) was immediately banned in England and France, but sold well in the United States until the U.S. had officially joined in the war, saw nothing good or glorious, but speculated that it must be out there. “Undoubtedly,” she wrote, the front has, “produced glorious deeds of valour, courage, devotion, and nobility. . . . We are witnessing a phase in the evolution of humanity, a phase called War — and the slow, onward progress stirs up the slime in the shallows, and this is the Backwash of War. It is very ugly. There are many little lives foaming up in the backwash. They are loosened by the sweeping current, and float to the surface, detached from their environment, and one glimpses them, weak, hideous, repellent.”
La Motte treated patients overflowing with cowardice, greed, weakness, and pettiness. She tried to associate them with the ideals for which they had supposedly been injured and likely killed and injured others. She tried to distinguish fixing them up to go back to the glorious front line from fixing up a patient who was destined to be court martialed and shot:
“Wherein lay the difference? Was it not all a dead-end occupation, nursing back to health men to be patched up and returned to the trenches, or a man to be patched up, court-martialled and shot? The difference lay in the ideal.
“One had no ideals. The others had ideals, and fought for them. Yet had they? Poor selfish Alexandre, poor vain Felix, poor gluttonous Alphonse, poor filthy Hippolyte — was it possible that each cherished ideals, hidden beneath? Courageous dreams of freedom and patriotism? Yet if so, how could such beliefs fail to influence their daily lives? Could one cherish standards so noble, yet be himself so ignoble, so petty, so commonplace?”
La Motte concludes that “these ideals were imposed from without — that they were compulsory.” One man’s dying words were these: “I was mobilized against my inclination. Now I have won the Médaille Militaire. My Captain won it for me. He made me brave. He had a revolver in his hand.” La Motte notes that when French troops captured German batteries, they found German gunners chained to their guns. Grand ideals seemed to be applied from without on each side.
The ideals, Motte eventually implies, may themselves not be the right ones. When a Belgian child is brought to the hospital and viewed as far less of a priority than adult soldiers, one nurse seems not to be on board with that viewpoint. “She was sentimental, and his little age appealed to her — her sense of proportion and standard of values were all wrong.”
La Motte even questions whether grand national ideals are actually being applied at all: “It is the Nation’s war, and all the men of the Nation, regardless of rank, are serving. But some serve in better places than others. The trenches are mostly reserved for men of the working class, which is reasonable, as there are more of them.”
La Motte is aware, by the end of her book, that she’s called into question how undoubted it really should be that glory and nobility are anywhere to be found in the war. “People often say to me,” she begins a concluding story, “you are quite morbid about war, about your experiences in the War Zone. Surely, surely, in all those long months, you must have seen something that was not grim and horrible — something that was noble, inspiring, or amusing, something that was human. Certainly, I say — I did — there was Esmeralda.” I won’t tell you who Esmeralda was, but will tell you that, needless to say, the story ends up depicting the very opposite of generosity or heroism.
When La Motte asked the U.S. government why it banned her book, asserting that its stories were true, the reply was that that was “exactly the trouble.” Truth, Motte concluded, has no place in war. Despite World War I hardly bearing any resemblance to wars of just a century earlier, and today’s wars having almost nothing in common with World War I, the fact remains that truth has no business in war.
Propaganda has progressed to the point where it is not at all uncommon to find a participant in war who actually believes the salespitch. War has been so normalized, and humanity is of such variety, that it is not too difficult to find a participant in war who is kind and decent to anyone on his side. But those on the other side are now mostly civilians. The casualties of today’s wars are not dozens of soldiers and a stray Belgian child. The casualties of today’s wars are dozens of women, children, and senior citizens, plus the occasional stray U.S. soldier. Hospitals sit in the middle of today’s wars and are frequently bombed. We can read in the U.S. media comparisons of the numbers of U.S. children killed with guns or U.S. citizens killed by police versus U.S. troops killed in recent wars. But, never, ever would anyone see a point to be made by comparing those other statistics with serious studies of the numbers of non-U.S. lives killed in U.S. wars.
In these one-sided slaughters no bravery can ever be heroism. No act can ever be justified. The entire endeavor is backwash all the way down. And we’ll drown in it if we don’t hurry up and “evolve” to the next phase of humanity after the one called War.