By lex, on November 11th, 2009
At 1100 on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns finally fell silent, but not before 10 million young men fell, never to rise again, with another 20 million maimed, and nearly 8 million missing, forever. The world got its first look at modern, industrial warfare on a massive scale and turned away revolted. Promised those left behind that this would be it, the war to end all wars.
It was a promise that went sadly unfulfilled.
Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who had been killed in the Korean War.
On Memorial Day we lay flowers on the graves of those that fell. Today we give humble thanks to those that served, and returned again with honor to take up the plow, hammer or pen. Or to those who fell back into the ranks vowing to keep the sword bright and sharp for the next time, grimly aware that there will always be a next time, that only the dead have seen the last of war. Having seen for themselves the real nature of man, knowing as they do that weakness is provocative to savagery and that the surest path to peace is to be prepared for war.
Some march in parades, and see the battle pennants streaming from the colors. For them these are not mere gaudy flashes, for they have a memory of the time before they were in place, remember the streamers fresh and new, remember what it cost in human terms to tie them to the flagstaff.
Others will gather in taverns and VFW halls, hoist refreshments in memory of their youth, offer toasts to absent friends forever young, and wonder how they will ever be able to explain any of it to anyone who wasn’t there, while knowing that for those who were, no explanation will ever be necessary.
Some will wake up in the middle of the night seized with nightmares or private guilt, some few will try to self-medicate, fall down a deep tunnel and end up wandering the streets muttering dark and unintelligible dirges of innocence lost and the human connections that cannot be restored once one has seen the whole world turn violently mad.
Military service is hard, even in peace time. People are asked to surrender a portion of their freedoms to better ensure the freedoms of the rest of us. Discipline is enforced; great exertions are called for, there are separations and privations. They are taught to run towards the sound of the guns, to stand in the hatch and fight the fire, to shove the throttles up and fly into the maelstrom. In short, they are conditioned to willingly go towards things from which every fiber screams to flee. They are taught, and most of them eventually come to believe, that there is something more important than themselves. That some things really might worth dying for, whether those be noble principles, those they left at home, or those on their left and right.
These are hard teachings, but they have the example of heroes to testify to the truth of them.
In this land we are graced with a vibrant political culture, but it was Washington’s guns and musketeers who gave it to us. We enjoy the remote fastness of our island home, but it was Decatur, Farragut and Porter who scoured the seas to defend our ocean ramparts. We have human freedom and increasing dignity here at home, but not before three million boys in blue and butternut contended the terms of that freedom. We have liberal democracies here and abroad, but not before millions more marched forth asking for nothing but a patch of earth to be buried in, should it come to that.
There are many blessings in this land, but although we tend to treat them as birthrights, transferable to our heirs in perpetuity, the reality is that all of them have been fought over. Perhaps the greatest blessing of all is that in each generation there have been those who answered their country’s call when it came and said, “I’ll go. I’ll do it. Pick me.”
They are the veterans, and this is our day to thank them.