Veterans Day falls on November 11th to mark the anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War. Perhaps no other conflict in western history has generated more acknowledgement of the savageness of our species. The furnaces of the Holocaust represent the result of a society gone mad, led by a psychopath into the abyss. The trenches of the Western Front evoke no such emotion. They leave us feeling cold and empty, standing as monuments to, as one song has put it, “man’s blind indifference to his fellow man” as a “whole generation were butchered and damned.”
World War I has not reached the same prominence in the collective memory of the United States as it has in Europe. Perhaps this was due to the brevity of our involvement. Or perhaps we have simply allowed the “great crusade” of the Second World War to eclipse the pointless struggles of the First, seeking comfort in the knowledge that our fellow citizens died fighting evil while forgetting that a good many died for no apparent reason.
Things are quite different in Western Europe. The British cannot forget that, on July 1, 1916, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. One does not have to look far to see why the French and Germans have an equal sense of remembrance; Europe is littered with collections of “countless white crosses.”
The wars of the past century were quite different from those of our time. During World War II, every community had gold stars hanging in house windows. Now, after 9 years of war, the number of American service personnel who have died equals only about a quarter of the British dead on one day of one battle in the First World War. The vast majority of us have not been touched by war, nor will we ever be. We can live our lives in peace, sacrificing nothing, giving nothing, and all the while expecting that status quo to remain untouched, while a tiny sliver of our society is sent to the desolate corners of the world to fight a dangerous enemy in conflicts most of us would rather forget.
It has been said that the greatest gift we can give our veterans is to bring them home. Perhaps this is the case, or perhaps it is their job to protect us and the rest of us must accept the guilt of not having done our part. But the fact that this question is so rarely raised in our public discourse is telling. We have not learned the lessons of history. We have not remembered the terrible price our service members must pay. Instead, we have swept such concerns under the rug of our own self absorption. And all the while veterans are coming home maimed, both physically and mentally, returning to too little support from the society they sacrificed to protect. Why are we not asking more questions? What does “victory” in Afghanistan look like? Is propping up yet another corrupt government worth the cost in American lives? Or are we there for a humanitarian mission? And if so, is Afghanistan really the best place for us to be? What of the genocide in Darfur? And what will we ask of our servicemen and women if Iran gains nuclear weapons or Pakistan devolves into civil war?
To answer these questions, we must remember the lessons of history. And so I will leave you with one of the lessons of the First World War, as captured by Wilfred Owen, a man who would have been one of the great poets of the 20th century had he not been killed a mere seven days before Armistice Day 1918.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.