Armistice Day, 2008

Here is a lightly revised version of a piece published two years ago on Veterans’ Day.

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy, petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,
‘I’d say — ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

-Seigfreid Sassoon, WWI vet

Armistice Day, Veterans Day, Remembrance Day, Poppy Day: Name changes should never efface the memory of the terrible origins of this holiday. November 11 marks the armistice in World War One, a pointless conflict that was allowed to drag on for years because of its very pointlessness. Leaders saw no advantage to themselves in acknowledging the stupidity of the war by calling it off. Instead, they preferred to keep expanding it.

Early on the German consulate in Boston sent someone down to Providence to browbeat my grandmother’s step-father into returning to the Heimat and taking up the cause of a war generated according to train-timetables. He had the good sense to throw the consulate man down the stairs.

But eventually a newly re-elected president, who’d campaigned on an anti-war platform, decided that what the European war needed most were American troops. My grandfathers served in the war, and I pay tribute to them. I never heard them speak of it in later years. Yet I’m sure they were painfully aware that many of their fellows did not return from the war. Those men will have no descendents to pay tribute to them, ever. We can do right by them by telling the truth about the past. It’s the very least we can do.

The November 11 anniversary should be a day of soul-searching, I think. For me it always calls to mind the political and military “leadership” that criminally sent millions to horrific deaths and blighted a generation of men. With few exceptions, these leaders were callous, calculating, deceitful, and cowardly men. Some were megalomaniacs who saw war as a stage upon which to act out fantasies of their own brilliance.

Among the worst was Woodrow Wilson, who lied to Americans in 1917 about the grounds for going to war; about his motives; about his intentions in it; about its human and financial costs; about the ease with which victory would be attained; about the need for a draft; about virtually every aspect of it. And he ruthlessly crushed public dissent against his war. He labeled dissenters traitors, sending plenty of them to jail and trampling civil liberties in ways that the nation had never before seen. On top of that, the management of the war was a fiasco. All of this, ultimately, to wage war against a country that presented no clear threat to the United States.

The parallels to the present day are striking. That is how the governments of callous, calculating, deceitful, and cowardly men wage wars. The deeper they get mired in their bloody quagmires, the more determined they become not to lose face, not to change course, not to admit to mistakes. The greater the disaster they create, the more other people must be made to suffer the consequences for their own self-image or what they believe is their “legacy”.

And therefore the arrival of peace in Iraq, if ever there be peace, will be a slow, sorry mess. Pettiness and petulance will long delay it. Negotiations will stink of personal self-aggrandizement. Ultimately any agreements to end the US occupation will be kitted out in false trappings to disguise the brutal fact that a decent regard for mankind would have caused the politicians to make peace years earlier.

On Remembrance Day, I remember not so much the ceasefire that politicians finally signed back in 1918. Instead, I think of their callous indifference to suffering for years on end.

I remember their deceitfulness in announcing a “False Armistice” on Nov. 7, 1918, just to gauge whether people would blame them for cutting and running without ever defeating the enemy.

Above all, I remember their calculation that they could find a way to mask the humiliation of admitting that millions of men had died just in order to attain an armistice…that they cooked up the scheme of delaying its announcement until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In the meantime, the troops continued to suffer. Everything coming up elevens was supposed to distract the public from the horror. It was a scheme dreamed up by Woodrow Wilson, childish in intent, murderous in effect.

It’s the greater legacy of World War One: propaganda.

I refuse to be distracted by propaganda. I remember the men whose lives were thrown away in the final hours of that war, as Wilson and the other politicians waited to announce the armistice. For men went on dying until the numerals 11 could become perfectly aligned on calendars and clocks.

Consider for example the American marines who fought their way across the flooded Meuse River on the night of November 10, 1918, in the face of withering German fire. They died in droves. People like Oscar Swan died before the numerals could become perfectly aligned.

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They died in vain. But worst of all, they died no more in vain than millions before them. They all died, from the first day to the last, in a futile war. They kept on dying because the “leaders” didn’t want to be seen to cut and run from a fiasco.

On this anniversary of Armistice Day, the question presses in upon us once again: Why cannot our leaders have a decent regard for mankind?

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