There will be plenty of time to talk about the politics and news goings on in the nation and the world. Today, however, is Veterans Day.
By now, you should know that Veterans Day celebrates all of America’s Veterans, and began as “Armistice Day,” recalling the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month when the Guns of August at last fell silent over the fields of Europe and World War I ground to a halt. It wasn’t the end of the war in a technical and legal sense, but it was the end of the shooting. But not all of the dying.
As I have said in recent days, World War I has become something of an interest to me. I am stunned, more than 100 years after the fact, not just at the level of destruction and death, but at the acceptance of those levels by the peoples of the day – at least at first. By 1916, a hundred years ago, there was very little “glory” in going to war, a lot of conscription of men for the armies, much hunger and great despair as more and more men were sacrificed to – in the immortal words of Captain Blackadder – move the Field Marshal Haigs’ drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
That war, particularly on the Western Front, is a study in human psychology and fragility. Men who knew they had no hope of survival whatsoever and had no real reason for doing so, went over the top and attacked in useless assault after useless assault because if they didn’t go, they would face being shot by their own leaders. The miracle of the First World War is that troops didn’t mutiny long before 1918.
Germany was essentially starved to defeat. Oddly enough, a new scientific breakthrough, achieved in the early 1900’s, allowed Germany to produce weapons through the war which would not have been possible otherwise. Ostensibly the Haber-Bosch process was to designed to produce fertilizer to grow food. And it did (and has continued to do so). But a major side effect was that the same material needed for the fertilizer, nitrate, is also the main ingredient in 20th Century munitions. In the most “Guns or Butter” decision ever made, Imperial Germany chose to use the nitrate it produced via the process to continue to make weapons. Her people starved and mourned the dead until they could take it no longer.
Some twenty or so years later, the same Haber-Bosch process would allow Nazi Germany and to a lesser extent Imperial Japan, to continue to make weapons and fight on long after they should have burned through all of the resources they had in the first place. In both wars it is estimated that at least two years were added on to each war by enabling the production of weapons after the natural resources and ability to import nitrates, primarily from Chile, had been exhausted. Think about that for a moment. How many millions of people died in 1916-1918 and later again from 1943-1945?
The same science that allows us to feed nearly 8 Billion people today, also helped to continue the destruction that killed millions upon millions.
When the First World War Armistice went into effect on November 11, 1918, at 11am, the entire world seemed to stop. One of the most fascinating TV shows I have ever watched was a documentary (The Last Day of WW1) about the final hours of the fighting. Imagine being that man who was on a bridge in Belgium, at 10:59am, holding your breath and waiting, and then being hit in the final minute of the shooting. It is incredible, and you can watch it here:
The US involvement in the war is somewhat problematic for historians, especially given that this week was also the anniversary of the re-election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916, on the platform that “He Kept Us Out of the War!” Within months, he would stand in the Capitol and ask Congress to declare war on Germany.
Most of Europe saw the US involvement in the War not as much as an “Arsenal of Democracy” moment as they did a move to protect our investments. America had loaned France and England Billions upon Billions of dollars, and it wasn’t clear that they would win. There were a great number of people in European leadership who believed that America was fighting more for money than for any high minded ideals of liberty or democracy.
In the conflict, US Commanding General Black Jack Pershing made no bones about things and would not allow US troops to be amalgamated into French and British units. Americans would fight as Americans, period. Well, except for African-American troops. Those he gladly sent in great numbers to the French, where they fought with incredible ferocity and bravery and to this day are revered by the French.
When the war ended, the celebrations of the Armistice were an annual reminder of the sacrifice and the destruction that the first global “ToTaL War” had wrought, and the belief that it would never happen again. Which, of course, it did. For many of the same reasons and in the same places with the same results, the destruction and death on an unparalleled scale that today we still cannot comprehend.
Today, we don’t think about the dead in Flanders Field or Belleau Wood. We don’t wear poppies, although if you happen to pass a VFW post or stand they will offer you one to wear. We do celebrate the men and women who have served this nation from its inception to today. We recall their deeds, their sacrifice and their devotion to duty. The citizen soldier who served and serves us still.
I fear for the future of Veterans Day, as it has slowly become a day of “freebies” and “benies,” more than a day of recalling the service and no longer a day “dedicated to the cause of world peace,” as it was originally.
Maybe today, in the midst of meals and sales or parades or coffee cups, we could step back and ask ourselves what all of that service was for? And remember that millions upon millions were never able to commemorate the day because the human race really hasn’t learned the lesson that the day was supposed to teach us.