While talking with a fellow who remembered a medieval life in wartime quite vividly, I was trying to convey what stood out for me about war on the Western Front and how I perceived the conflict.
I came to the conclusion that I felt absolutely no resentment toward the Germans and never have. If I have any resentment it’s largely personal and internalized for allowing myself to get dragged into a war I didn’t have to fight.
In fact, in all my memories the greatest menace was not the soldier across the trench nor even his gun. The threats that affected us most directly were the numerous impersonal ways of killing, where those who cut us down never even saw our faces. Bombs and shells that left nothing of our comrades to bury; steel traps that mangled limbs; gas that drowned teenage boys in their own lungs; machine guns that made killing an entire platoon from a hundred yards away a casual task; it seems that no matter what uniform you wore, it was the machines we battled most directly and the machines that always won.
It may be true that every machine had a human being behind them but think of what that human being had to become to make the decision to use those machines in such a way. They had to be cold, logical, and detached and the most cold and detached of all were the top brass of our various militaries, who saw each of us privates as just another integer in an equation toward gaining the upper hand. To make the most of a mechanized war, they themselves had to become like machines, think like them, and employ them in the most ruthlessly optimized way possible.
If you think of what happened after the war, how entire economies became based on building military machines and the movement toward automation and ruthless optimization hit new peaks, it could be argued that the science fiction scenario where human beings are enslaved by machines in an apocalyptic battle has already happened. We are nominally in control of technology inasmuch as these machines do nothing without our behest, but functionally technology controls us and everything we do.
The fellow I was talking to then mentioned Tolkein and how his writing was influenced by the mechanized death he saw all around him in France in 1916, and it clicked for me: this is why Phil was so fixated on the question of what makes us human and what happens when the takeover of humanity is so complete that machines no longer be distinguished from humans. I was as much afraid of machines becoming human-like as I was of humans becoming machine-like to adapt to such a world and in my previous life’s books, you can see it in profound detail, how a world that doesn’t even know it’s lost a war with its own inventions is slowly squeezing out the last of its humanity.
I think I need to revisit this in my writing. I’ll be chewing on this for a few days.