Europe

Armistice Day

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Fleurs-Courcelette, where the British gave birth to the battle tank

I remember an evening sitting through one of those ghastly, self-righteous arguments about the Vietnam War that seemed to plague any attempt at serious conversation in the 1970s.

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Paschendale today

The wild-eyed beard next to me showed no interest whatsoever and seemed to regard all the hot air as little more than an opportunity to bogart the joint someone had lit. Naturally, he was the only fighter at the table, having earned his serious case of PSTD in the infantry during the Tet Offensive. The two righteous dudes who almost came to blows over the conflict were also veterans, but had earned their stripes in the Saigon Headquarters Typist Pool and as an MP in Bitburg, Germany.

Somehow, it all made perfect sense.

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Red Zone–a command post at Verdun

I’ve never much cared for talking to strangers and can’t help a smidgen of discomfort when I see a civilian approach some random soldier and ostentatiously declare, “Thank you for your service!”

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Trenches outside Ypres

What exactly was that soldier’s service? Was he rescued from the unemployment line to chauffeur bigwigs around Washington DC, or did he slog through rice paddies in sheer terror as his friends dropped around him? If the latter, then who are we to thank him—we who have no earthly idea what he suffered (pontificating movies and sit-coms don’t count). Does a “thank you” do anything for the veteran, or does it somehow legitimize the speaker, like wearing a #12 Brady jersey to a Patriots football game and screaming at the refs?

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Bomb craters near Douanmont

Anyway, this all came to mind on Veterans Day, a day that used to be called Armistice Day, and that fell this year exactly 100 years after the guns went silent on the Western Front.

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Trenches outside Ypres

In that earlier conflict, so inadequately designated (in the US at least) as World War I, eight individual countries lost more than a million soldiers each. The total dead came in at somewhere around 40 million—staggering not just for the quantity, but for the fact that no one can remotely pin down the number. So many people died, that we simply lost count.

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Downtown Douanmont today

For the returning wounded—another 22 million souls, give or take—thanks were few and far between. The problems would have overwhelmed the most conscientious of social programs, even without the post-war Spanish Flu pandemic spiriting off a further 20 million lives. The veterans of the four-year nightmare were left to their own devices, selling pencils, waiting in the soup kitchen line, beaten up as Bonus Marchers, or signing up for the latest Fascist revenge sect.

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Defused munitions near Ypres

And yet the common men and women of the Great War had literally turned the world upside down. Empires had crumbled, entire social strata had vanished. All the mass marketing that had gone into selling the war came back on the principals when the masses woke up to the carnage and deprivation behind all those sweet, confident promises. The modern world, in all its hideous, hypocritical glory, had become fact.

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Somme battlefield at twilight

But as the minuscule ebb and flow along the Western Front supremely illustrated, it all happened one yard and one life at a time. The misery fell not on grand armies, and certainly not on any decision-maker, but on the individual grunts and poilus stuck in the fear and squalor of the trenches.

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Victory and defeat in Compiegne

If anyone cares to look, those dead are still with us today. Thousands of graveyards dot the North European landscape. Farmers still plow up unexploded munitions by the ton. Entire tracts are so thoroughly saturated with blood that they’ve been designated “Red Zones” into eternity.

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Somme battlefield graveyard

So Armistice Day might sound a bit foolish these days as a celebration of the end of all wars, but I still rather like the ring of it.

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John McRae

Categories: Europe

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