These are the World War I deaths from the village of Lehon, Brittany, population about 3000
This summer I told a storekeeper in the U.S. that I lived in France. "I can speak French," he said. He threw up his arms in the universal sign for surrender and said, "This is how the French say 'hello'!"
This man never fought in a war. He lives a thousand miles from any coast or border. He lives in the most powerful country in the world, one which has not been seriously invaded since his ancestors slew the Indians in colonial times. He was smug and self-righteous in his assurance that the French are cowards, that Americans are not.
The United States of America, my own beloved country, has a population approaching 300 million people and is protected from invasion by two oceans. In its short history as a nation it has never fought a war that approaches the horrors visited upon France by World War I and II. The United States has not had a war on its soil since the Civil War, when between 500,000 and 700,000 Americans died-- 19 percent of Southern soldiers died, and 13 percent of Northern. This is rightly considered a horrendous total and a terrible war. In World War I, the Killed-in-Action figures were fewer than 2 percent of American troops; yet their terrible sacrifices at places like Omaha Beach and Okinawa are honored by us all.
World War One was fought on French soil. Nearly a million men died at Verdun; another million died at the killing grounds of the Somme. More than 1,400,000 young Frenchmen, out of a total population of about 40 million, died as soldiers in World War I. More than ten percent of France's entire population died in World War I. And for what? What could France point to as the result of the war? Nothing. Victory belonged to the fresh American troops who went back home to their untouched country and a decade of prosperity. France was devastated. According to a recent American book, there are to this day 12 million unexploded bombs at Verdun alone. Then 25 years later, it all happened again. In 1939 the French population was about 41 million. Almost three-quarters of a million died in World War II.
Day before yesterday, I drove through a village of five or six farmhouses in Normandy. How many young men did such a tiny village count at that time? There was a big monument to the dead of World War I, as there is in every French hamlet across the land. I counted twenty-one young men's names from those few farmhouses.
The main reason for World War I and World War II was that important men believed other countries' soldiers would be cowards. They were wrong.
La paix est le temps où l'on dit des bêtises, la guerre le temps où on les paie. --Robert de Saint-Jean
(Peace is the time when we say stupid things, war when we must pay for them.)