To Hell and Back

"Will no one tell me what she sings? Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow / For old, unhappy far-off things. And Battles long ago." Wordsworth, perhaps, was prompted by recollections of an age before warfare meant the mechanized destruction of all in its path. Yet war, to paraphrase an American precursor of Zhukov and Guderian, has always been hell. At Agincourt, the French knights were mowed down by the massed projectiles of the English bowmen. Then, as the mounted knights in headlong flight crashed into the oncoming wave of their own men-at-arms at the rear, the heavily armored French, piled on one another in heaps taller than a man, were slaughtered by crushing blows from hammer and sword. The English troops literally waded through a sea of blood. Many of the Frenchmen who had pleaded for quarter were butchered on the spot, and the English even incinerated some of the French wounded who had taken refuge in cottages not far from the battle. The remaining prisoners were held for ransom. It is significant that Henry V, who ordered the slaughter of the prisoners, was forced to employ archers—men who stood outside the medieval system of chivalry—to do a deed that placed at risk the king's honor as a Christian monarch. Chivalry (however imperfectly observed), buttressed by the Christian faith, served to restrain the dogs of war in the time before ideology had eroded Christianity and technological progress made what John...

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