Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | November 11, 2012

Ninety-Four Years

This post is an annual tradition on Veterans Day at The Optimistic Conservative.

Ninety-four years ago, in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the armistice was proclaimed that ended the terrible fighting in World War I.  A war that had erupted in large part because Europe’s political leaders, a century on from the Napoleonic conflicts, were accustomed to war remaining limited, produced some of the bloodiest battles ever fought. The six-month battle of the Somme in 1916 took the lives of an unimaginable 1.5 million French, German, and British soldiers – without either side achieving sustainable penetration of the line of confrontation, or any operational victory. WWI was the most tactically and politically frustrating of wars, admitting little maneuver, little jockeying for advantage, and no enduring significance to victory.

But it marked the debut of the United States on the stage long occupied by the great powers of Europe, as American soldiers boarded troop ships to head “Over There,” and with their numbers and supplies, along with improving mobile tactics in the battles of 1918, turned the tide in favor of the Western alliance. We remember WWI now – as we should – for its excruciating trench battles and horrific death toll.  But it also inaugurated, in cataclysm and blood, the defining trends of the 20th century.

Lindbergh flying over the American cemetery at Flanders Field, Belgium

American geopolitical significance was one; of all the major political players in WWI, Woodrow Wilson was the one to put his name on an enduring international idea. Another was the rapid mechanization of warfare, in three dimensions.  WWI saw the first use of the armored tank, the debut of the first aircraft carrier prototype, the use of aircraft for bombardment, the rise of the submarine to effectiveness and tactical primacy in naval combat, and the fulfillment for ground warfare of the promise of indirect artillery fire, which pinned down troops in trench lines hundreds of miles long for years until military planners could figure out how to maneuver against it. The trend toward breaking up empires in favor of nation-states and popular sovereignty lurched forward at the end of WWI, which started with six major empires governing parts of Europe – British, French, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman – and ended with only two intact.  Indeed, out of the break-up of empires in WWI came the eventual fractious, uneasy statehood of most of the Middle East, with whose consequences we live today.

But on that Armistice Day in 1918, few could have foreseen the cast of sleeping giants – and some would say gnomes and demons – that was awakened by the Great War.  Few, indeed, had had any inkling in August 1914 that the troops heading off to war, with bands playing and tripod-mounted cameras snapping, would be ground to a pulp within months; or that the joking complacency of the pre-war summer would yield ultimately to a melancholy civilizational silence, in which the proclamation of armistice was a nearly soundless ripple, and weary peoples turned to the business of their son-denuded homes and towns and villages, and sought reasons to go on.

We never do see it coming, at least not in the outlines visible in hindsight.  War was in the air in 1914, but no one foresaw what that war would actually turn into.  A quarter century later Europeans were as steeped in complacent certainties as ever, even after Germany remilitarized the Rhineland, occupied the Sudetenland, and invaded Austria.  As Clare Booth Luce recorded in her incandescent Europe in the Spring, the political class of France, England, and the Low Countries spent the “Phony War” period of late 1939 and early 1940 reassuring itself that Hitler wasn’t going to invade them.  Nor were Americans any more farsighted:  our Congress came within a vote of demobilizing the Army in 1940, so certain was it that whatever stew they managed to cook up over there in Europe, we in America could stay out of it, if FDR’s hands were properly tied.

We are always living with unfinished business, and everything that seems like an ending to us eventually turns out to have been a beginning.  So it is with the armistice that ended combat in WWI.  In 1954, there having intervened a second world war and the Korean War, President Eisenhower signed the proposal to commemorate the day as “Veterans Day,” and remember veterans of all wars on it.  With the passage of time and the natural demise of the soldiers who fought in WWI, our vivid memory of the war itself is fading. But it remains a cautionary event, a source of fable and moral exhortation, and often, today, freshly relevant – and that is due in part to the fact that it ended with an armistice, the quintessential emblem of unfinished business.

Unfinished business is all around us today, as nations jockey against a precarious international order and America herself focuses inward.  It has never been wise to bet on the commitment of men or nations to peace, and we have no reason to do so in 2009.  Veterans Day is a day significant in this geopolitical sense, because of its origins in America’s first participation in a campaign to restore a global order. Our president at the time called it fighting a “war to end all wars.” It wasn’t, of course; war has not ended.  We have had to keep going back again and again, and the features of WWI have dictated where and when, and why and how.

But Veterans Day is also well named and well focused, in that its subject is veterans:  those who fight when unfinished business creeps up on us, when foresight fails, and the best-laid plans make contact with those of our opponents, and limp back to us wounded and inert.  In today’s America, our veterans are volunteers.  We are, uniquely for a great power, a little-militarized society:  our armed forces are comparatively small given our size and power, and relatively few Americans today find their personal lives touched by participation in war and combat.  Yet we see our military not as a cadre of alien professionals, but as our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers – as a mobilized yeoman people, representing ourselves and what we believe in.

Early markers for American soldiers at Flanders Field cemetery

Our participation in WWI, a watershed outing for us, might have changed that.  But it did not.  Conflicts like Korea and Vietnam, conducted in a heavy political twilight, could have changed our perception of the purpose and character of our veterans.  But in the end, they did not.  Our armed forces, for all the natural human faults of those who people them, enjoy today an exceptional level of confidence from the nation, and a support from many that is heartfelt and visceral.

We are 94 years on now from that November day in 1918 that marked an agreement of combatants to unfinished business, and launched the near-century in which we have tried to finish it.  The unforeseen that is always around the next corner makes these lines from John McCrae’s 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” particularly poignant:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Do they sleep, the Dead in Flanders fields?  Have we who caught the torch kept faith with them?  We have spent 94 years trying to figure that out.  We are likely to spend at least 94 more.  On Veterans Day, we can take a moment to honor the veterans who have carried that torch, giving the reality of flesh, blood, and spirit to our often confused, disputatious, dilatory, and halting attempts to keep faith with those who lie in Flanders fields.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

Note for new commenters:  Welcome!  There is a one-time “approval” process that keeps down the spam.  There may be a delay in the posting if your first comment, but once you’re “approved,” you can join the fray at will.


  1. HUAh

  2. Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Til on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
    And towards our distant rest bgan to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
    But limpedon, blood-shod, all went lame, all blind,
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

    Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – an extasy of fumbling
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime –
    Dim through the misty panes and dim green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams before my helpless sight
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning,
    If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
    If you could hear at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
    Bitten as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
    My friend, you should not tell with such high zest
    To children desperate from some desperate glory,
    The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    Wilfred Owen, 1918

    In memory of Capt Billy Murray, Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1888 -1917,
    and for Richard Murray, who never forgot.

  3. I had little appreciation for the importance of WWI until I had seen Ken Burn’s PBS documentary, “The Great War”. European societies appalled reaction to the carnage of WWI led directly to the pacifism and denial of the 1930’s. The draconian financial punishment imposed upon Germany by the bitter French and English, preceding as it did the world wide great depression of the 30’s provided an environment ripe for the rise of Hitler and his Nazi party.

    But after WWII the pacifism and denial in Europe did not fade away and that despite the lessons incompletely learned of the foolishness of attempting to appease a Hitler. In fact, after WWII European pacifistic denial led to the societal acceptance across western Europe of transnationalism. The theory that Europe’s intractable problems were directly traceable to nationalism. Trans-nationalism posits that the European Union, the U.N. and pacifism can free mankind from war. Trans-nationalism however, necessarily embraces socialism, which of course makes it unsustainable.

    Europe can be somewhat loosely divided into its Northern and ‘Mediterranean’ members. Societies existing in warm, mild weather climates typically develop a somewhat relaxed cultural attitude toward life. A society free to embrace pleasure, will often simultaneously develop a somewhat lackadaisical attitude toward living within its means, as there is no pressing reason for concern about survival. Northern societies on the other hand, have to deal with cold climates which means short growing seasons, greater energy demands for heating and a shorter time frame in which productivity can be pursued. That forces the setting aside of pleasure for work in order to ‘make hay while the sun shines’ in order that the long winter not bring privation. Northern European societies developed a strong work ethic against the more difficult conditions they faced.

    Modern Europe reflects those conditions. The Northern EU members are increasingly reluctant to support the Mediterranean members and within the next two years the EU will collapse. The EU is simply, finally, “running out of other people’s money”.

    The U.K. is a perfect microcosm of this dilemma, Scotland is living off the largesse of a fiscally supportive England; Nine in ten Scots ‘living off state’s patronage’

    Amazingly, a substantial number of Scots seek independence, it evidently escaping them that should they win the independence from the UK they seek when the binding vote occurs in 2013, the English will have little reason to continue to provide the gravy train upon which the Scots depend.

    “Even genius has its limits but stupidity is infinite.”

    The demographic suicide of low birth rates that native Europeans are pursuing, combined with unrestrained Muslim immigration that has no interest in assimilation and support of European liberal values, combined with the coming economic collapse of the EU, ensures that trans-nationalism’s pacifism will not stop war from coming to Europe again.

    It’s just a matter of time, as predictable as a Kabuki play. Only the details remain to be discovered.

    BTW, not all within the US were blind to the coming conflagration in 1939. My 17 yr old father convinced my very reluctant grandfather to support his enlisting in the army in 1940, when he reached his ‘majority’. The argument my father successfully used was simple; he argued that everyone not in denial knew that we would eventually fight Hitler and that his chances of survival would be greater if he had the normal amount of peacetime training, rather than the very brief amount of training he would receive if he waited until the war erupted.

    You see, my grandfather well remembered the brief weeks of training of WWI and then being thrown into the fray as ‘cannon fodder’.

    The ‘shock’ that so many American’s experienced on Dec. 7th, 1941 was attributable to most people’s inability to look past the minutia of their own lives, an economic blockade of Japan had to have repercussions, that they would declare war should have come as no surprise, the Japanese were already fighting in China and Manchuria. Only the sneak attack without prior warning (partially accidental) might be categorized as unexpected.

    Human nature being what it is, just as many today refuse to read the writing on the wall…

    • “I had little appreciation for the importance of WWI until I had seen Ken Burn’s PBS documentary”–

      Geoffrey, are you saying that you didn’t serve in WWI ?

      I would never have taken you for a slacker.

      and besides, what were you doing watching PBS…. are you now a Marxist?

      • I skipped WWI after serving in the Spanish American war, then got back into it with WWII 😉 Slacker? Even God rested on the 7th day… Nature and historical documentaries are usually non-political. It’s not the source, it’s the content.

  4. Great post. And fabulous comments.

  5. Reblogged this on The Peanut Gallery.

  6. Thanks to all you Vets out there. I (and others) owe you what can never be repaid.

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