Saturday, November 11, 2023

Armistice Day 2023

One hundred and five years 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 very real sense what is happening in Gaza today—and in the streets of London right now—is lingering fallout from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire then.

But back to 1918. If you read German sources, you’ll find the German military leadership at the time considered the 11/11/18 Armistice to be merely an opportunity to fall back, rest, reorganize, re-equip, and get ready for the next chapter in the never-ending war between the Franks and the Saxons, which with rare exceptions has been going on since the time of Charlemagne. 

Never mind that now. Let us accept for the moment 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 becomes 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 U.S. Navy, but 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. He was a Navy landing craft crewman attached to a Marine division, and 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 50 succeeded in committing suicide by drinking hard liquor and chain-smoking Camel straights.

My teachers’ war was in Korea. I’ve had the privilege of knowing men who landed at Inchon or fought at Chosin Reservoir. My generation’s war was in Viet Nam, but through the grace of God and a high draft lottery number, I missed it. Far too many of my friends and relatives got the invitation to the party, though, and 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, while others came back just fine. Two of my best friends seemed to have come back just fine, only to explode in cancer years later, likely as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. 

I have had the honor of knowing, and sometimes even hiring, young soldiers who have come back from Iraq or 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 have 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 have the opportunity fight and die for their country—

Was probably a REMF.

Those I have 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 Helmland Province—what they always talk about are the friends they left behind. 

So here we are, on Armistice Day. Once again I will pray for peace, but I fear that war is baked into our genome. I am not concerned for myself, or even for my children—they seem to be doing okay—but I think of the world in which my grandchildren will live, and try not to shudder. We Americans have been really lucky, these past forty years. No run of good luck lasts forever. 

Thus when the sun sets tonight, I’ll take down my American flag, carefully fold it and put it away, open a bottle of wine, and raise a glass in a toast: to those who never came home

May there be no more.


GuyStewart said...

Uncle Earl: WWII; Dad: Korea; Friends: Vietnam; Brother: Korean Jetliner Incident; Son: South Korea/Kuwait ("I felt the ground shake from underground nuclear testing up north", and "You have no idea how close...")

Thank you for sharing.

[Mine all returned; but THEY all left others behind -- not always from "enemy action", but some from "mind self-action".]

Guy Stewart

Big Bob said...

My father was in the Korean conflict and about the only things he ever talked about were the funny things that happened. I know I asked him about other things from time to time, but it was clear he didn't want to discuss things in much detail. I also had a great uncle who drove an ammunition truck onto the beach at Normandy and survived the war, but I never knew that until much later in life.

The more I think about it, I don't recall ever having a conversation with someone who actively served in a combat situation where they volunteered information willingly.

JVS said...

My mom’s stepdad was gassed in WW1. He was never the same of course according to my grandma. I never knew him, but heard stories that he could play any musical instrument, and built a marvelous dollhouse and furniture for his 2 youngest daughters. He despised my mother, chased her outside in a snowstorm in her bare feet.

My dad was in the Army Air Force in WW2, and served on the cook’s trains to feed troops across Europe. My mom took a train out to Kingman AZ, to marry him before he shipped off to war. The power of prayer brought him back, as I read in my mom’s faithful journal and her letters he brought back with him. He never talked about it.

My uncles served in Korea, an old friend’s dad served as America tested atomic sun the Bikini Islands. The government never recognized the health damages they suffered till death.

My husband served during Vietnam. As an African American, he decided to enlist in the Air Force rather than be drafted into the Army’s front lines. He did, however buy his own burial plot before shipping off to Thailand. There are no guarantees in war, are there… He was an air traffic controller, and also was a DJ on Armed Forces Radio and TV. To this day he is an audiophile of many genres, but especially the Blues (being from Memphis).

A neighbor whom I admire so much was in Iraq several times. He continues to serve and rise up through the ranks.

To me, being in the Military is the most frightening thing I can imagine.

Karin Terebessy said...

This was a beautiful reflection Bruce. I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and I grew up at the knee of those who, through a miracle survived, yet felt a lifetime of guilt as they talked about entire towns, entire families, that didn’t survive . My family’s experience with the history of those great wars is not American. But my brother, who is American and was in the army when the towers came down, saw combat in Afghanistan. I don’t think he’d want me talking about that though. The most honest response I can give to your piece is not my own. It’s a quote from the great WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” when he says if we could see what he saw in WWI “…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”

ARSJensen said...

In Park Street United Church, Chatham, Ontario, there was an old, carved, wooden floor lamp with a memorial plaque. I didn't think much of it, until I read the date. The soldier had died on November 11th, 1918: Armistice day. It must have happened before 11 a.m., when the guns were supposed to fall silent.

That congregation had many WWII veterans when I was there, most of whom were stubbornly silent about their experiences. One exception was a military dentist, who was part of the D-Day landing. I think he enjoyed how startled everyone looked to realize that dentists had stormed the beaches, too. He wouldn't say much else, but took great pleasure in distributing sugar-free gum to the children.

One year we played the hymn "Weep for the Dead" and I was warned by one veteran of the North Atlantic Merchant Marine fleet that if I ever chose that hymn again, I was in deep trouble.

I wish that our remembrance led to us learning from our past experiences. The price paid by those we send to fight is unimaginable.