11th Day of the 11th Month

 Edouard_Detaille_-_Vive_L'Empereur_-_Google_Art_Project[1]

It was a world in which many people’s romanticized mental image of war looked a lot like a really awesome, albeit especially noisy, parade or a light-opera production of ‘Student Prince.’ Lance-carrying horsemen. Uniforms with gold braid and buttons. Big, furry hats. Bright colors and stirring martial music.

The conflagration that became the First World War was supposed to last but several weeks, ending sometime in late autumn. Some sabre-rattling. Raising of imperial flags. A big cavalry charge through the gently-rolling fertile lands of Belgium and France was supposed to end it while crops were still in the field.

Yeah, well, not so much, as it turned out in reality.

The real war was brutal, filthy, de-humanizing, ugly. It lasted years and virtually killed off an entire generation, mostly young men. Many of those who were fortunate enough to return home alive were changed in ways that made them unsuited to the lives they’d led prior to their war experiences, much less the lives they needed to live afterward. Many were permanently injured, physically and psychologically. The world that had been at war from 1914 to 1917 was a much harsher, bleaker and poorer place than it had been before the world’s ‘great’ imperial powers launched their war to satisfy nothing but ego and greed.

It’s estimated there were 37 million casualties. Just by way of making this scale tangible, that’s more than the combined population of the top 25 US cities in 2012.

Reflecting both the need and hope of the people left alive in its wake, it was coined ‘The War to End All Wars.’ And, sadly, that turned out to be a hopelessly romantic notion too.

On November 11th at 11 o’clock am, the warring powers signed an armistice, ending hostilities. It was the hope of most participants that the treaty, combined with the creation of the League of Nations, would make it possible for global war to be eradicated. In less than 30 years, that romantic ideal would be exposed as fiction too.

In America, we commemorate November 11th as ‘Veterans Day,’ to honor those who’ve served in our armed forces. While entirely worthy, I wish we’d commemorate it instead as the day the world let itself believe in the illusion of a final war. That might actually cause us to question our continuing national philosophy that we can engage in winnable, limited and acceptable wars in the future.

British_55th_Division_gas_casualties_10_April_1918[1]

Waste

There are times, I believe, when a nation must take to arms for absolutely legitimate reasons. Invasion is certainly one of those reasons. Ego gratification is not.

What we now call World War One, what was once called The Great War, started because of happenstance and lunacy. It became the most horrific spectacle of the 20th century because a very few number of leaders (none democratically elected) thought virtually nothing of the lives of their subjects, and cared very much about their own personal standing in the world.

Unprepared for the demands of modern warfare, military commanders blithely sent wave after wave of young men against poison gas, artillery and machine guns, then the newest weapons of mass destruction, into the certain death of direct assaults against fortified positions. Before the carnage was over, there were 35 million casualties, of whom 7 million were civilians. Cities fell to constant bombardment. Death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

The nations of Europe lost an entire generation of young men. Empires, that had sought to improve their standing in the world, collapsed. Maps were redrawn. That continent changed, more or less, permanently.

And there were the waves of war-scarred veterans returning home, changed, more or less, permanently as well. Sullen. Withdrawn. Drug-dependent. No longer able to fit within the societies they’d left.

As we Americans consider our next use of our armed forces, we would do well to ponder Europe’s ugly history of military adventure directed toward achieving uncertain aims. For unleashing weapons with illegitimate reasons, there is hell to pay.

In Flanders Fields

I ran into two old Marines yesterday, handing out red poppies for a donation to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. We talked for a few minutes, as I love to do with veterans, and they told me I was the first person in hours who’d known what the poppies represent.

It’s sad, really, but it’s the price we Americans pay for turning all our commemorative holidays into generic three-day weekends. More BBQ and beer, less appreciation.

In case you don’t know, there was a horrific series of battles on and around a Belgian plain during the First World War. Red poppies grow there naturally in abundance, creating the look of a field of blood where the fighting and death had taken place. This poem, which captures the spirit of the dead, was written soon after the first fighting there.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And that is what Memorial Day and the red poppies handed out by aging veterans commemorate.