Jerry R. Tompkins, editor
Resource Publications, 178 pages
The ugly brutalities of war are best told by eyewitnesses so the danger of romanticizing violence is minimized. It’s true of all wars, but perhaps none more so than World War I, which the United States entered 100 years ago this past April. WWI, after all, was the global battle that counted among its millions of victims the popular but naïve idea that humans are perfectible. When the soul-shattering carnage finally ended, poet Ezra Pound summed up the sorrowful meaning of the shocking bloodshed this way:
“There died a myriad,
and of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization … .”
The late Eugene William McLaurin, serving as an assistant U.S. chaplain in the war (mostly in northern France), not only watched some of those myriad die, he personally buried many of them — or what was left of them — and took careful notes for his diary and for letters home to the woman he would marry. They have been made public now in this small, engaging book. It rings with authenticity and sadness at the human condition, but also reveals a man who never lost hope. In fact, McLaurin went on to be ordained as a Presbyterian pastor and eventually a professor of systematic theology and a well-known linguist in biblical languages at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
In this diary, McLaurin only occasionally moves from straight reporting to drawing theological conclusions. But when he does his words reveal a deeply spiritual man. For example: “The German artillery gave us all they had. It rained shrapnel. Even with all these disadvantages, our men conquered.” He called it “splendid proof of the powerlessness of the most powerful material and physical forces to overcome spiritual qualities of courage, devotion to ideals and willingness for unselfish sacrifice.”
In this book we get to see not only McLaurin’s unmasked reactions to an unhinged world, but perhaps even echoes of our own questions and doubts about faith. “The more I see of this hellish business,” he writes, “the more deeply I hate war.” He then described conversation among his fellow gravediggers and the changes “the last few weeks had made in their lives. Three said it had made real Christians out of them. I wonder how many of these good resolutions will be remembered in real life.”
In a letter to his eventual wife, written in June 1918, McLaurin describes what he’s found as he has examined his life in such violent circumstances. His moral code, he wrote, had become simple: Whatever gives or helps life is right. Whatever hinders or kills it is wrong.
The book includes some grainy black-and-white photos from the war. At first I thought their quality detracted from the book. But eventually I came to see them as haunting witnesses to that era’s collective madness, which differs only in style from our own collective madness.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star.