Tuesday, February 23, 2016


The centennial commemorations associated with World War I come almost daily, and they are important to note lest we become complacent about the distance humankind has traveled. One hundred years ago this past Sunday, the Battle of Verdun began. Over the course of the next ten months, the German and French armies blasted away at each other in what appears in retrospect to have been one of those set pieces characteristic of the Great War, one in which tens of thousands of troops were killed--perhaps 300,000 altogether--with no significant advantage being gained by either side.

Paul Jankowski, a historian at Brandeis University and the author of a book on the Battle of Verdun, considers the battle's meaning in an essay published over the weekend in the New York Times Sunday Review. The battle, Jankowski concludes, in the end controlled the generals who had hoped to control it. This offers a lesson worth remembering when we hear the intemperate talk of war from presidential candidates who seem to know little about history.