I am writing this on Veteran's Day, November 11, 2014. Exactly ten years ago today my wife and I were standing with the subdued crowd in front of Notre Dame de Paris. The great bell tolled with solemn majesty as the representatives of France, the United Kingdom and the United States marched by, commemorating the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, when the Great War ended. For over four years Europe had been convulsed in a massive bloodletting that had cost approximately sixteen million lives.
The war had begun in the summer of 1914, just one year shy of the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. In that period of nearly a hundred years, Europe enjoyed a time of relative peace and stability that it had not known since the reign of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161, CE). From 1815 to 1914, science, literature and art flourished like never before. The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman's magisterial history of the last decades of that period, is a "prequel" to The Guns of August, her account of the beginning of the First World War. In the former book she tells the story of a civilization that had aimed high and achieved much and offered so much promise -- only to see its noblest aspirations drowned in a sea of blood.
Commemorations are good. It is good to stand with eyes lowered and to hear the bell ring and the bugle sound. The only danger is that in honoring the veterans, both living and dead, we will let our feelings be cheapened into flag-waving sentimentality. It is easy to give lip-service to honoring the sacrifices of warriors while forgetting the true nature of the sacrifice.
Fortunately, the great writers and poets will not let us forget what warfare truly is and the real cost paid by those whom we remember on Veteran's Day. The Iliad often dwells in excruciating detail on the injuries inflicted by spear, blade or arrow. You are told just where the bronze tip of the spear entered the chest and how it jutted out the back. Homer dwells on these details not out of morbidity, but from a determination to show us the cost of battle. Homeric heroes win glory, but their fate is to bleed out their lives on the dusty plain of Troy.
Wilfrid Owen, poet of the Great War, no doubt often heard his Latin tutors intone "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." (It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country") Owen will have none of it:
What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
--Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice mourning save the choirs--
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
Owen was killed, on November 4, 1918, one week before the armistice.
Though his poem came from the next war, Randall Jarrell's Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, depicts the sacrifice even more grimly. The American B-17 and B-24 bombers had rotating ball turrets with twin 50-caliber machine guns. These turrets hung beneath the aircraft to protect them from attacks from below. The attacking Messerschmitt and Focke Wulf fighters were armed with cannon and heavy machine guns. The effect of these weapons was devastating.
From my mother's sleep, I fell into the State
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Joseph Heller's Catch-22 pivots around something similarly horrific. The anchor point of all the slapstick and absurdity of Heller's novel is a scene of primal horror. Yossarian, the bombardier, the protagonist of the novel, is called back to help the injured gunner, Snowden. He treats a small wound and then notices bleeding from under the gunner's flak jacket. He pulls open the flak jacket and Snowden's intestines spill out.
So, yes, let's remember the veterans and make sure that we do not gloss over the true cost of their sacrifice. How do we best honor those who served and remember those who paid "the last full measure of devotion?" We do it best by not sending young people to die gruesomely unless it is really and truly a necessity. War must be our last resort, not our first one. We most honor those called upon to make such a terrible sacrifice when we make sure that they are fighting for a cause that is worthy of the cost, and not for the ambitions of politicians, or the pipe-dreams of ideologues, or the bottomless greed of those besotted with wealth.