The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Monday, November 17, 2003

VETERANS DAY, BELATEDLY: Veterans Day has come and gone for another year, but I've been mulling about it and one of the results of this extended mull is that I missed blogging on the day itself. World War I is not really an important topic in American history; our involvement lasted 19 months and no sooner was the war over than we began demobilizing the American Expeditionary Force with almost untoward speed. We had gone "Over There," just as we said we would, and no sooner was the trouble over than we came home again to an America that had, in the meantime, voted for Prohibition. All of that trouble and only lemonade to celebrate with. It was enough to drive a man to drink, if only he could find one.

The war was not like that at our house. My grandfather was in the British Army before the war began and eventually he served in France, Egypt, and Salonika. His brother was killed in Flanders in April of 1918, and my grandmother's first husband died in France in 1916; she had his name tattooed on his arm before he left [as kids me and my brothers always wondered who that man was and why his name was tattooed on Grandma’s arm. She never told us; she didn’t like talking about it and my grandfather didn’t like thinking about it; he'd tell us to never mind if we ever brought the subject up in his presence] So for us, unlike most American families, the war was not a bump on the road from Appomattox to Pearl Harbor.

Veterans Day, Armistice Day as it was first called, was the day the war and the 19th century ended. History does not usually arrange things in the neat organized categories that historians are so fond of. The twentieth century began in 1914, on August 4, when Great Britain declared war; the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called it the day the real twentieth century began. But the 19th century hung on for four more years, as the politicians and the generals squandered the lives of an entire generation of young men. Nineteenth century notions of honor and duty and patriotism kept the men in the trenches long after men of a later generation would have said no more. Even the French Army mutinies of 1917 were, in a way, negative mutinies: soldiers would defend France if the Germans attacked, but would not attack themselves. This is hardly the position of men who have thrown over everything they have ever believed in for a new modern twentieth century way of thinking. It was, instead, the demand of men who have been pushed beyond endurance time and time again and will no longer countenance generals who lead them to slaughter.

So the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month came, and the shelling stopped, and the troops went home, and the truths and institutions that had characterized European life had vanished or were disowned. Four empires fell, their rulers pushed into exile, or, as in the case of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, murdered with his family in a squalid cellar, and in their places came a German republic tainted from the moment of its creation, a totalitarian monstrosity, cut up by secret treaty into mandates, and a mob of squabbling little countries hacked from the wreckage of Austria. America, disgusted at the mess, went home and learned the Charleston. It was a time, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, when an entire generation had "grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken...."

But the sacrifices, having been made, had to be justified, and the Germans were made to pay for a war they didn’t feel solely responsible for. Pershing, the American commander, had wanted to go all the way to Berlin and compel an unconditional surrender, but the other powers said no, end the war now. So the war ended, with the German Army standing everywhere on foreign soil, with a civilian population fed on a steady diet of victories over the course of the war; it is little wonder that the stab in the back legend took such a firm grip on the German psyche--how else to explain the triumph of German arms and the disastrous peace? But on the eleventh of November 1918 all that was in the future. On that day there was exhaustion and jubilation and tears for having survived and tears for those who hadn’t and the politicians planning on taking their pound of flesh and in a hospital a wounded corporal vowed to revenge himself on the criminals who had cost Germany the war, thus ensuring a new crop of veterans to be honored on Veterans Day.


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