Overview:

A hundred years later, World War I still scars the land where it was fought. What unintentional memorials are we creating today for our descendants?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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We want to be remembered for great deeds. That’s why ancient rulers built pyramids, erected obelisks, or carved inscriptions to sing their own praises.

In more modern times, we carve statues into mountains, embed time capsules in cornerstones, fill libraries with books, and put artworks in museums. We throw them into the current of time as messages to the future, hoping our descendants will look back on us with admiration.

That’s why it’s a dark historical irony that some of the most enduring artifacts of civilization are our garbage. The scraps and detritus that archaeologists dig up tell us more about the past than the dusty proclamations of long-dead kings. Just the same way, it’s likely that our fossil pollution will outlast every other trace of humanity.

There’s a region in France that illustrates this. It shows that, often, the things we leave behind reflect not our best qualities, but our worst.

The Battle of Verdun was one of the longest and bloodiest of World War I. From February to December 1916, the French and German armies clashed in brutal trench warfare. Three-quarters of a million people died in the mud. When the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried, nothing had been gained by either side.

Trench warfare is the subject of many misconceptions, and an essay by Bret Devereaux debunks some of them. The most common misconception is that it was motivated by sheer stupidity on the part of the officers, ordering their men to leave the safety of the trenches and charge suicidally into enemy fire. Supposedly, the commanders somehow failed to notice that they were sacrificing lives by the thousands and gaining nothing in return.

Often, the things we leave behind reflect not our best qualities, but our worst.

The reality of trench warfare is that an attack always began with massive artillery bombardments, to pulverize the enemy lines and keep them from shooting back at the attackers. The problem is that the sheer destructiveness of artillery turned the battlefield into an impassable wasteland of churned mud, rubble and flooded craters. This made it impossible to advance and dig into a new position quickly enough to hold out against the defenders’ counter-barrage from their big guns.

That’s what happened in the Battle of Verdun. Over the course of the battle, the French and German armies fired tens of millions of artillery shells at each other. By some estimates, around one in five were duds. Rather than explode on impact, they burrowed into the mud.

A hundred years later, that ordnance is still there.

The land where the battle was fought is riddled with the remnants of war: barbed wire, shrapnel, bullets, grenades, artillery shells. They’re rusting, decaying, disintegrating—but these buried weapons are a legion of restless dead. Some of them leak heavy metals like mercury, lead and arsenic, or deadly poisons like chlorine and mustard gas. Some are unstable, liable to explode if disturbed.

The iron harvest

This is a phenomenon across the battlefields of Europe. In the rich agricultural lands of France and Belgium, farmers call it the iron harvest: the annual “crop” of old munitions and rusty weapons that they uncover as they plow their fields. As recently as 2017, 60,000 people had to be evacuated in Frankfurt, Germany when a World War II blockbuster bomb was discovered underneath a building site, where it had lain for more than seventy years.

Verdun was especially saturated with artillery fire. When the war ended, there was no way to clean up the thousands of toxic, dangerous munitions buried in the earth. The French government declared over four hundred square miles of devastated, battle-scarred land unfit for human habitation. They dubbed it the Zone Rouge.

Even today, that land has never been resettled. Nature has reclaimed it, though incompletely. In some places, the soil is so poisoned that even plants can’t grow, leaving a sickly wasteland. In less toxic areas, trees and wildlife have made a comeback, but the woodlands are lumpy with strange hills and hollows where there were once bunkers, trenches and shell craters.

There were villages deep in the conflict zone that had to be abandoned. They’re still there, slowly crumbling into ruins, overgrown with vines and tree roots. Signs and plaques mark what once stood there. According to this tweet by novelist Paul Cooper, one reads: “In memory of water. In this place stood one of the fountains of Douaumont.”

The French government has demining teams who work to disarm the old munitions and remediate the toxic soil, but it’s a Herculean task. (Not to mention dangerous: hundreds of deminers have been killed on the job.) They estimate that it could take another seven hundred years to fully clean up the land and make it livable again.

The gross stupidity of war

The Zone Rouge and other places like it are a monument to the gross stupidity of war. The grievances that motivated World War I have faded into irrelevance, but people are still living with the consequences.

After two world wars and tens of millions of senseless deaths, there was a time when we could hope that humanity had glutted itself on war. The post-war era, while not totally free of violence, was one of the most peaceful in recorded history. For a while, it looked like we were finally learning the lessons of the past.

The Zone Rouge and other places like it are a monument to the gross stupidity of war.

Alas, we haven’t all learned that lesson. Vladimir Putin has resurrected the specter of war in Ukraine. For the sake of a dictator’s whims, more innocent lives are being destroyed, more cities bombed, more land blasted and poisoned. Most sickeningly, retreating Russian soldiers have left behind booby traps to kill and maim returning civilians.

It’s a war every bit as stupid, wasteful and pointless as the conflicts of the past. It was launched for no good reason, and it will accomplish nothing. And it’s likely that when it ends—however it ends—there will be more places left in ruins, as yet another warning to the future not to repeat our mistakes.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...