A client of whom I was very fond was born on Nov. 11, 1912, making him exactly 6 years old the day the fighting stopped in the War to End All Wars.
Before he died a few years ago, this client wrote to me about his memories of his sixth birthday. Every church bell in his small Wisconsin town rang endlessly; joyous people celebrated in the streets. Peace had come.
An estimated 10 million soldiers died as World War I raged from 1914-1918. Approximately 6 million civilians also perished, some directly from military action, but more from hunger, disease and other effects of dislocation. The United States only participated in the final year of the war, but still lost more than 116,000 sailors and doughboys. It was carnage on a scale the world had never seen, largely the result of the efficiencies wrought by the Industrial Revolution.
We can understand why people were so quick to believe that such waste would never be permitted to happen again. They were convinced that human self-preservation and the League of Nations would prevent it.
Peace is one guest that never overstays its welcome. One could make a case that it never really arrived at all, on that day in 1918. Russia was still in the throes of post-revolutionary power struggles that produced several years of civil war. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire led to tragic conflict between ethnic Turks and Armenians and to a redrawn map of the Middle East, both of which remain pressing issues today. By the early 1930s, totalitarian governments were in place in Germany, Japan and Italy, and by the end of that decade they had launched the opening salvos in what became World War II.
My father joined the Navy in World War II as soon as he turned 17. He saw action in Normandy and, later, in the Philippines. Today is the first Veterans Day since his death last December, which surely is part of why I found myself thinking this week about war and military service.
He did not talk in detail about his wartime experiences when I was growing up. Mostly I remember him making up silly stories about serving on ships that were stranded in the desert. Later, there were slightly less silly stories about hijinks with fellow sailors and local girls in the Pacific. But when men of his generation got together, they did not talk about the war, at least not in front of us kids. They all served. They all had their stories. I suppose, to them, all the stories had the same ending, which needed no articulation. They were the ones who made it back, started families, and had better things to talk about. They all knew others who were not so fortunate.
But Dad became more vocal about his military service as he got older. He regaled doctors, nurses and strangers in medical waiting rooms with details. He wore a Navy cap to keep the sun off the mottled skin of his bald head (which I had long since attributed to his hours on the deck of his patrol boat in the tropical Pacific sun). He loved nothing better than to walk around in a Navy town like Jacksonville, Fla., where strangers might approach him, talk about their own experiences and thank him for his contribution.
I had also left home for distant parts by the time I turned 17, but I went to college, not to war. I was a few years too young for Vietnam. For my age cohort, and for all the children of the Baby Boomers, military service has been a choice rather than an obligation. All the more reason, I think, to say thank you to a service member or veteran if you happen to meet one. Today is the day we should remember to acknowledge them, but any day will do just fine.
I will fly to and from Atlanta next week on business. There are always a lot of uniformed soldiers passing through Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, often en route to and from overseas deployments. When we board the planes, I try never to step in front of these young men and women, even though, with their unfailing good manners, they would always defer to an older, graying man like me.
Maybe today, in airports around the country, gate agents can call uniformed service members to the jetway as part of the courtesy pre-board, along with the business-class passengers and frequent fliers. Let the kids have some extra overhead bin space for those duffels, and maybe even offer them a complimentary soft drink. They certainly deserve it.
As of Monday, The Washington Post reported that 4,471 U.S. service members have lost their lives in Iraq since conflict there began in 2003. Another 1,803 have died in Afghanistan since 2001. The totals include 1,019 deaths in the costliest year, 2007; 554 fatalities in 2010, and 424 thus far in 2011. Every one of them left family and friends behind. They all sacrificed in ways that are well beyond my personal experience and comprehension.
Though all wars are horrible, not all are unnecessary. The people of Libya are the latest group who can attest to that. We can consider ourselves more realistic, or maybe just more cynical, than our predecessors about the possibility of ending all war.
Yet I can almost hear those church bells ringing in hope and celebration in that small Wisconsin town in 1918, and I still feel a connection to those people. Anyone who lived through something like the Great War would want to believe it could never happen again.
The Armistice Day holiday that they officially established a year later, in 1919, became a more general salute to military veterans in the 1950s. It has become a day to honor and recognize everyone who chose to fight for freedom while hoping for peace.