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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day 2018



A century ago today, the guns on the Western Front fell silent, and “the war to end all wars” came to an official close. That wasn’t exactly what really happened, of course: on the Eastern Front, the Great War segued into the Russian Revolution, followed by the Polish-Soviet War and then the Russian Civil War. On the Greco-Turkish front, the fighting continued until 1922, and in a sense the world today is still dealing with the fallout from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire then. If you read German sources, you’ll learn that the German military leadership at the time considered the 11/11/18 Armistice merely an opportunity to fall back, rest, reorganize, re-equip, and get ready for the next war with France.

But never mind that now. Let’s accept that on November 11, 1918, “the war to end all wars” officially came to an end. The older I get, the more poignant this anniversary seems to become to me, while at the same time the more horribly sardonic H. G. Wells’ 1914 propaganda phrase—yes, H. G. Wells, not Woodrow Wilson, coined the expression, “the war to end war”—becomes as well.

The Great War was my grandparent’s war. As I sit at my desk and write this, if I were to look up, I’d see some of the medals my great-uncle won, as an infantryman fighting in the mud of the trenches. Charles Everett came back from his war, but according to my mother, he was never the same again.

The Great War, Part 2, was my parent’s war. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fought in the island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific, and flew and fought in heavy bombers over Germany. To this day I remain in awe of what they did in those terrible days. My father was Navy: like Robert Heinlein, he was sidelined by a medical condition and never saw combat. My father-in-law was a Marine Corps Pacific theater combat vet; he never talked about what he saw or did. My wife’s Uncle Leon died in the Battle of the Bulge, and for sixty years his family didn’t know where he was buried, until a family friend on assignment to NATO headquarters in Brussels happened to find his name on a headstone in the Ardennes American Cemetery.

To me, though, the face of WWII will always be that of my childhood best friend’s father, Ben, who was a Navy landing-craft crewman attached to a Marine division. His service record reads like a list of the Hellholes of the Pacific. On those few occasions when he talked about his time in the Navy—usually, after quite a few drinks—all he could talk about were all the friends he’d left behind, face-down in the sand on some faraway beach. He came back from the war, but never really came back, and before he turned fifty succeeded in committing suicide by hard liquor and chain-smoking Camel straights.  

My teachers’ war was in Korea, and I’ve had the privilege of knowing men who landed at Inchon at fought at Chosin Reservoir. My generation’s war was in Viet Nam. Through the grace of God and a high draft lottery number I missed it, but far too many of my friends and relatives went to the party. Some came back in boxes. Some never came back at all; we only know approximately where their aircraft went down. Some came back damaged, either physically or psychologically, some came back just fine, and two of my best friends seemed to have come back just fine, only to explode in cancer years later, probably due to Agent Orange exposure.

I have had the honor of knowing, and sometimes even hiring, young soldiers who’ve come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. All the same, I fear that in years to come, we’ll learn that GAU-8 ammunition exposure was every bit as bad as Agent Orange.

In all these years, though, and after all these wars, I’ve learned that one thing is universally true. Anyone who is eager to talk about his or her time in the service—anyone who talks about the glory of war—anyone who insists that young people (and preferably, someone else’s young people) should be proud to fight and die for their country—

Was probably a REMF.

Those I’ve known who were in the shit—in Normandy, or in the Pacific, or at Inchon, or as a door-gunner on a Huey flying over Quang Tri, or acting as a bullet magnet in Helmand Province—what they always talk about is the friends they left behind.

So here we are, on Armistice Day. The sun has set. I’ve taken down my American flag and carefully folded it and put it away. If I had a glass of wine, I would raise it in a toast: to those who never came home.

May there be no more.

3 comments:

Mark Keigley said...

Respect for the best tribute I read today....

Judith said...

This is well said.

My great uncle survived WW1 but died of the flu. My father was a hero of WW2. That's as far as it goes for my family. I have friends who served more recently. I drink with you to those who never came back.

Jacob said...

Thanks for this article, Bruce. I can't help but remember my Grandpa with whom I have many happy memories. He was drafted and went to the Philippines. He survived, but was haunted by some of the things that happened. Losing friends etc. He described hand to hand combat with Japanese soldiers, and he felt bad because he was a boxer and "in the best shape of his life" while the ones he encountered were out of ammo and starving. But, it was kill or be killed. I always told him I was glad he did what he had to do to make it back.