The History Channel on television had an hour on the First World War. It focused on the attempt by the British to build parallel tunnels that would permit explosives to be detonated inside the German lines in eastern France. The megaton explosives would all go off at the same moment, the British would charge forward, and then make their way to the Belgian port of Ostend to stop the German submarines that were choking Britain to death. The tunnel project took two years. And when time came to move the troops and artillery pieces forward, the rains began, soldiers dropped into the mud and drowned, and not even 100 men could haul artillery pieces out of the mud ruts in which they were stuck. The British had an army of 249,000 when the war started and now 5 million were mobilized. The Americans arrived in 1917 with 750,000 troops. Casualties in a single day’s fighting reached as many as 50,000. Ten million died by the war’s end. Those were big figures, though not greater than the incidence of deaths in our own Civil War, adjusting for population.
60 Minutes, one hour later, featured a German doctor who had come home from spending 14 months in North Korea. He told Mike Wallace that he was devoting his time to trying to give an apathetic public some idea of what life is like in that country. Starvation happens before your very eyes. Hospitals use milk bottles to store such medicines as there are. — Can’t they get out some idea of how miserably they live? Mike Wallace asked. — No. No they can’t. There is zero communication with the outside world. Radios are soldered in to the Pyongyang channel. There is a single sign of life: 1 million preening soldiers. That’s the equivalent of 30 million Americans in uniform.
Oh. And they have an atom bomb. Not the atom-nuclear bomb, which is nascent, or semi-active, or fully active in their laboratory. They have the equivalent of an atom bomb along the border. In one hour, the missiles and artillery could kill twice as many South Koreans as the real atom bomb killed in Hiroshima. We could blow up Pyongyang using a single submarine, but we could not eliminate the World War I-style artillery and missile launchers. The new South Korean president is being as brave in the new diplomacy toward Kim Jong Il as Churchill would have been toward Hitler if Hitler, in 1939, had had an atom bomb.
And then television gave a reprise of the awful minutes ending the lives of seven human beings, 39 miles from earth, up in the skies, traveling at 12,500 miles per hour. The brief eulogy by President Bush was replayed. He told us that the victims had a “high and noble purpose” in life, that “mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world ” by a “longing to understand.” He closed with the ultimately understanding words of the prophet Isaiah, who said that God knew the names of every one of the stars He created, so also of the crew of the shuttle Columbia.
So also of the dead in World War I trenches? And the living dead in North Korea? And the impending dead in Iraq?
The hour on television displayed the screeching need both for an understanding, and for a longing to understand, how the star-maker countenances what we do in war and peace on the earth on which we were given free rein. And what we fail to do. We will make an effort in the Mideast, but none is in prospect in the north Pacific, two areas of the world which the seven astronauts overflew 100 times, serene that they were out of harm’s way, a dream they died dreaming.