Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day

From reality to interpretive legend to disturbing relic. The creeping amnesia of war.

90 YEARS AGO. Like everyone else who remembers that today is Veteran's Day, I thank all those who have carried arms in the service of  our country, with particular emphasis on those who have served so honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan since the events of 9/11. By devoting this post to the day which began this annual commemoration, I am not ignoring those who have paid many different kinds of prices for their service in these conflicts. I am trying to remind my countrymen of a few important lessons from the past that are still relevant to our present and future rules of engagement in foreign theaters of combat.

November 11 became a sacred date in 1918 with the Armistice that concluded hostilities in World War I. Here are excerpts from an account of that day:

The final Allied push towards the German border began on October 17, 1918. As the British, French and American armies advanced, the alliance between the Central Powers began to collapse. Turkey signed an armistice at the end of October, Austria-Hungary followed on November 3.

Germany began to crumble from within. Faced with the prospect of returning to sea, the sailors of the High Seas Fleet stationed at Kiel mutinied on October 29. Within a few days, the entire city was in their control and the revolution spread throughout the country. On November 9 the Kaiser abdicated; slipping across the border into the Netherlands and exile. A German Republic was declared and peace feelers extended to the Allies. At 5 AM on the morning of November 11 an armistice was signed in a railroad car parked in a French forest near the front lines.

The terms of the agreement called for the cessation of fighting along the entire Western Front to begin at precisely 11 AM that morning. After over four years of bloody conflict, the Great War was at an end.

Colonel Thomas Gowenlock served as an intelligence officer in the American 1st Division. He was on the front line that November morning and wrote of his experience a few years later:

"On the morning of November 11 I sat in my dugout in Le Gros Faux, which was again our division headquarters, talking to our Chief of Staff, Colonel John Greely, and Lieutenant Colonel Paul Peabody, our G-1. A signal corps officer entered and handed us [a cable from Marshal Foch announcing the Armistice].

'Well - fini la guerre!' said Colonel Greely.

'It sure looks like it,' I agreed...

My watch said nine o'clock. With only two hours to go, I drove over to the bank of the Meuse River to see the finish. The shelling was heavy and, as I walked down the road, it grew steadily worse. It seemed to me that every battery in the world was trying to burn up its guns. At last eleven o'clock came - but the firing continued. The men on both sides had decided to give each other all they had-their farewell to arms. It was a very natural impulse after their years of war, but unfortunately many fell after eleven o'clock that day.

All over the world on November 11, 1918, people were celebrating, dancing in the streets, drinking champagne, hailing the armistice that meant the end of the war. But at the front there was no celebration...

After the long months of intense strain, of keying themselves up to the daily mortal danger, of thinking always in terms of war and the enemy, the abrupt release from it all was physical and psychological agony. Some suffered a total nervous collapse. Some, of a steadier temperament, began to hope they would someday return to home and the embrace of loved ones. Some could think only of the crude little crosses that marked the graves of their comrades. Some fell into an exhausted sleep. All were bewildered by the sudden meaninglessness of their existence as soldiers - and through their teeming memories paraded that swiftly moving cavalcade of Cantigny, Soissons, St. Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne and Sedan.

What was to come next?...

Meuse-Argonne:  The largest American cemetery in Europe.
Please take the time to watch this brief video about the place.

For many, nothing would come next. American dead in World War I totaled more than 116,000. Something to remember for those who once supported our current military campaigns but have grown weary and lost patience with such an inexcusably long war -- short wars aren't automatically more efficient or brilliantly administered. Our casualties in WWI occurred in just seven months of active American combat. Those who now wish to jump-start the Afghan campaign by sending in huge numbers of American troops might pause to reflect that big armies can come to grief more catastrophically than small ones, and in the wrong kind of terrain (as Afghanistan has been since the days of Alexander the Great), big armies are actually an invitation to catastrophe.

There are other sobering reminders embedded in our mostly forgotten WWI experience. Our troops in that conflict were told they were fighting a "war to end all wars" and that their victory would "make the world safe for democracy." Victory is what they achieved, witness the facts quoted above: "Germany began to crumble from within... the Kaiser abdicated; slipping across the border into the Netherlands and exile." But there are two equally important components of a successful military campaign. The first is conquest on the battlefield. That was achieved in 1918. The second is careful negotiation of the peace and intelligent administration of its terms. This did not occur in 1918 or after.

It is possible, and even common, for politicians to lose a war at the peace table after it has been won in battle. That is precisely what happened with the Treaty of Versailles which was negotiated after the 1918 armistice. Our troops came home almost immediately, and French and English troops also stood down in short order after installing a weak democracy in Germany that never had a chance of meeting the needs of its war-devastated and divided populace.

Tumultuous events aren't over and settled just because you want them to be or because it's more convenient to pretend they are. Turning your back on complicated situations you don't have the wit or energy to deal with appropriately can get you stabbed in the back. Which is how Hitler -- in just 20 years -- turned Germany's military defeat in WWI into the single greatest threat to western democracies they'd ever experienced. Politicians transformed the sacrifice of all the World War I dead into wasted lives. In particular, the Americans died in vain. Unlike their European counterparts, they weren't fighting to restore an uneasy status quo among rival kingdoms. They were fighting for a vision of world peace, a profound change in a sick and dangerous region of the world. But their leaders didn't have the patience or the vision to carry out their part of the mission. And so the Americans, I repeat, died in vain.

We are on the brink of a very similar situation. The Democrats and their supposedly visionary standard-bearer are poised to take the military success that has been achieved thus far in Iraq and do little more with it than declare victory and "bring the boys back home." And as they openly contemplate such a potentially disastrous course, they look damn self-righteous doing it.

That's why, today, I'd ask everyone to remember future veterans in addition to those from the past and present. If we bungle the next "peace," we will all be doing our part, even if through mere laziness, to ensure a whole new generation of American dead and wounded in wars not yet dreamed of. But just because no gun has yet been fired at the soldiers in those wars doesn't mean we're not already carrying the crosses that will be placed on their graves. We are. We are the people. We are the government of the United States. We are responsible for what is done in our name. And right now we are blind to the future our votes are helping to create.

Something to think about. On Veterans Day. On Armistice Day. The day the peace that wasn't was signed.

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