Sunday, November 11, 2012

REWIND: Forgotten fields in Flanders.

It's the 94th anniversary of the Great War's end, and in two years, the conflict's centenary will be upon us. Why is this important? Among other reasons, Americans remember it each year in the form of a holiday that has come to embrace the service of all veterans, not just the World War I generation.

Veterans Day is an official United States holiday honoring armed service veterans. It is a federal holiday that is observed on November 11th. It coincides with other holidays such as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, which are celebrated in other parts of the world and also mark the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. (Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice.)

November 9 marked another seminal anniversary: It's the day when the Berlin Wall fell. As I'm fond of pointing out, all things considered, the armistice in 1918 didn't end the war at all. The demise of the Wall did. My guess is that future historians will refer to this period as the 70 Years' War, and be done with it.

Here is a piece originally published in the newspaper on November 5, 2009.


Forgotten fields in Flanders.

Lately I keep hearing this tune.

Keep the home fires burning,
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.

These dreaming lads were soldiers, in route across the English Channel to fight for the United Kingdom, and several hundred thousand of them failed to return home to nostalgically remember a popular song written to inspire the home front in their absence.

By now it should be clear that war is horrible, and I’m not sure that it serves any purpose to discuss which wars are “just.” Justice in this context inevitably owes to situational morality as the combatants pray to their respective deities and make theological mockery of whatever religious interpretation devolves from these biased, selective judgments.

By all such standards, the Great War was especially horrible. The specific horror of this conflict, which eventually came to be known as World War I out of a contextual necessity to keep our historical accountings of human suffering clearly ordered, surely represents societal innocence shattered on an unfathomably massive scale.

An entire generation that had known no war outside of mock duels and parlor games willingly marched off to slaughter while gaily singing songs about honor and glory, and consequently, it’s a safe bet that World War I was the last disastrous conflict to feature a soundtrack entirely devoid of irony. Western societies would have to wait decades and refine techniques of amplification until the onset of thrash metal’s inherent violence finally provided music capable of approximating the grim reality of institutionalized murder.

Earlier this year, the last British veteran of the war died. Perhaps one American soldier of the era remains alive – and, in the time it has taken for me to write this essay, perhaps he’s gone, too. The war began in 1914, and it has long since faded into the black and white images of crude newsreel footage that only hint at the carnage of trench warfare and the doltish, outmoded “leadership” on the part of uniformed war criminals.

Providentially, my own grandfather was drafted too late for combat duty. He managed the not inconsiderable task of avoiding the flu pandemic that killed more American soldiers than enemy fire. My father then followed suit by serving in the Marines during World War II, which was “his” war, and a subject of fascination for him the remainder of his life.

I, too, went overseas, although not in uniform. In 1987, I found myself in Sopron, Hungary, choosing a beautiful early summer’s day to go for a hike in the hills. I came upon a large, older cemetery, and decided to walk through it, ascending a gentle, wooded slope past contemporary gravestones of the still-extant Communist era.

Like rings on a tree stump, history’s reverse chronology rotated as I continued uphill. Nearing the top, rows of Great War graves finally commenced. These were the soldiers who fought and died for the ruling family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the losers, as it were, who died as readily as the “winners” on the other side.

The first death dates were more recent: 1918, and then somewhat more from 1917, and as I scanned their names, the majority Hungarian, but also some Germanic and Slavic owing to the mutli-ethnic, polyglot nature of the Habsburg domain – as I contemplated how ridiculously, stupidly youthful so many of them were – I reached the lip of the hill, rather puzzled that there seemed to be no graves from earlier war years.

The answer to my befuddlement was just on the other side. Dipping into a valley studded with older, larger hardwoods, row after row of markers told the lethal tale: Died in 1916, 1915 and 1914.

I always think about the cemetery in Sopron on Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day, which originally fell on November 11th because that's when the fighting stopped in 1918, ending the First Great World War and enabling a “peace” conference in Versailles that did so much to ensure a second.

Previous generations knew about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, but all the other mass bloodlettings since required a consolidation of observance, and a holiday more intrinsically American. So be it, and I’m not here to disagree, even if we forget the first causes that brought it about.

However, we’re left with those many innocent, misplaced songs. Now that living memory has passed, they speak even more eloquently about life, death and our capacity, sometimes successful, and often not, to make sense out of the insensible.

A CBS television documentary, World War One, ran from 1964-65, comprising 26 half-hour episodes, and later airing on cable. My friend Barrie videotaped them. The series is now available on DVD (you can see excerpts on YouTube), and I’m weighing a Christmas purchase, because one of the episodes, “Tipperary and All That Jazz,” has haunted me since the first time he and I watched it around the time of my Sopron sojourn.

Ancient film, much of it depicting camp life behind the lines, forms a backdrop for song snippets. They are melancholy, sentimental and elegiac. It is heartbreaking … and very real.

There's a long, long trail a-winding
Into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing,
And a white moon beams.
There's a long, long night of waiting
Until my dreams all come true,
Till the day when I'll be going
Down that long, long trail with you.

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