Grateful on this Veterans Day

Not just to those who have served in the past and continue to do so, but also because of the recent safe return of my brother from his deployment. He’s finally met the baby daughter whose birth he missed!

Today also is the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, and The Guardian is running an excellent commemorative series this week on World War I. Here’s a video link (unfortunately it cannot be embedded) to an interview with a surviving British World War I veteran that captures the hatred of war and idealism (even pacifism) that many of those who fought in “The Great War” spoke about for decades:

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A friend recently told me about a trip he had taken to St. Michel, in eastern France, and a tour through a private American World War I cemetery.

“I was there thinking no one has visited these souls for probably years and its a forgotten place in history.”

This conflict is of special interest to me as a former history major and lifelong history buff because of how it shocked a Victorian world a half-century before Vietnam had a similar effect in America.

The unsentimental historian Barbara Tuchman wrote at the end of her eminent “The Guns of August” that of the war’s “many diverse results” there was

“one dominant one transcending all the others: disillusion.”

It’s one of many outstanding pieces of scholarship about The Great War. Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory” and Modris Eksteins’ “Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age” are exceptional for their fascinating examinations of the war’s effects on literature, art and culture. As Eksteins writes in his introduction, in one of many brilliant passages about the war ushering in modernity:

“That buffer, between thought and action, a positive moral code, has disinegrated in the twentieth century, and in the process, in the colossal romanticism and irrationalism of our era, imagination and action have moved together, and even have been fused.

“Sensation is everything. The ghost has become reality and reality a ghost.”

Why we fail to learn from this history — and I’m thinking of the neoconservative plunge into the Middle East that will have the U.S., and some of its few remaining allies, bottled up for too many more years — is as great a tragedy as the wars themselves.

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