A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
I always think of four names on November 11: Bud, Andy, Cornel, and Eugene, my father, father-in-law, and two uncles respectively. They all fought in World War Two, and thankfully, they all came back. Three of them are gone now, heroes to our country and certainly to me. My father-in-law's uniform from Patton's Third Army hangs in our closet. We take it out on days like this to remember him, reflect on what his generation did, and to talk with our kids of these things.
After them I recall the stunning images in the opening scenes of the movie Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg's craft is at its height with the panoramic sweep of the American cemetery at Normandy. The enormous, over-arching American flags lofting in the Channel fed breezes and keeping vigil over her sons, silently express a level of human emotion for which even Skakespeare might have been inadequate.
We celebrate Veterans Day on November 11 because that was the date of the Armistice which ended World War One in 1918. This day was known as Armistice Day until 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress, wishing to more specifically recognize the millions of World War Two and Korean Veterans, changed its name to Veterans Day.
World War One was the first "modern" war and its carnage was unprecedented. In London and Paris, trains unloaded the wounded at night to keep the horrific scenes from the pubilc. Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated British infantry officer wrote of a generation of young men who, "shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side, slowly trudged away from life's broad wealds of light". At the War's end France was pulverized, England was bankrupt, and Russia was Communist. Germany was little more than a cinder, a land of darkness and starvation. And as silence fell over the apocolyptic ruin, an Austrian Corporal named Adolf Hitler lay wounded in a field hospital, psychosis already creeping into his fevered mind.
In the immortal words of Winston Churchill, silence fell "on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month". A towering statesman whose vision was measured in decades, he rejoiced in the end of the bloodshed, but was deeply troubled. His journal entry that night reflected his fear:
"As Big Ben tolled I looked out my window and saw the drizzle of Empires falling through the air. Scarcely anything I had been taught to believe had lasted. And everything I thought to be impossible had happened".
He went on from there and predicted the great political and cultural vacuum that would ensue. Into the vacuum would step that Austrian Corporal, and just twenty-one years after that first Armistice Day, Hitler would plunge civilization into World War Two. And Churchill would be there to meet him. Armed with nothing more than his indomitable courage and soaring prose, the great statesman would rally the free world to resist and ultimately defeat the Nazi Fuhrer.
And for standing up to Hitler and his ilk, I say "thank you" to Bud, Andy, Cornel and Gene. I say "thank you" to all who have served. And I say "thank you" to those who serve today.
To paraphrase Isaiah - as for me and my house, we will shall not forget you.