(HOST) Willem Lange reflects on the progress society has made since the War to End All Wars.
(LANGE) At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 eighty-eight years ago tomorrow, military representatives of the Allied Nations and Germany met in the village of Compi gne, France, and signed the armistice that ended the fighting on the western front of what had become known as the Great War. The word “armistice” does not imply peace; its literal meaning is “weapons standing still.” The treaty that finally ended the war was signed seven months later; but Armistice Day, November 11, was the day the world had gone crazy with relief.
The nations of Europe slid into that great war with no appreciation of what was ahead. Germany expected to march through neutral Belgium and overwhelm the French in less than three months. But the Belgians resisted, and the French proved surprisingly tough. The French alone lost over 300,000 men just in the first month of the war alone.
Unless you’ve seen the old photographs of the blasted battlefields, you can’t conceive of the devastation of that war. Millions of men, a whole generation of Europe’s youth were sacrificed; the land lay a waste of mud, dead men and horses, shell holes, unexploded ordnance, and trenches. The effect was so horrific that the diplomats, assembling at Versailles to negotiate the peace, called it “the war to end all wars.” Which just goes to show you that diplomats don’t know any more than you or I. At any rate, Armistice Day officially became a national holiday in 1938.
After the Second World War and the Korean conflict, it became obvious that Armistice Day didn’t adequately commemorate the sacrifices of American men and women in our continuing wars. So in 1954 the observance became Veterans Day, which it remains. The president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a bugler plays “Taps.” All over the country at military cemeteries the local American Legion honor guards remember the veterans who have fought our wars from the Revolution through Afghanistan and Iraq.
I have visited military cemeteries from Arlington to Anzio to Normandy. It’s impossible not to be moved to tears by the long, silent rows of crosses and stars of David, or by the vision of all those thousands of young men and women who sacrificed the gift of their lives for an ideal they considered greater.
Any leader who decides to send his legions of warriors into the field to be perhaps maimed or killed in the defense of an ideal bears an unspeakable responsibility for that decision. It is easy to declare in a stirring speech that “these dead have not died in vain.” It’s equally easy for them to have done just that. We must never send young people to die for our sake unless we’ve exhausted every alternative. And we have too often not done that.
This is Willem Lange up in Orford, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.