In 1954, the long-honored Armistice Day became the oft-ignored Veterans Day. Once recognized as a celebration of the end of World War I, the holiday has become a generic honoring of all armed forces in all American wars and conflicts. Most employers allow you to exchange it for the Friday after Thanksgiving so you can take advantage of early Christmas sales. The loss of Armistice Day was the beginning of the gradual fading of the Great War from our collective American memory.
It has been called the end of innocence. It has been said that beauty and grace died on the battlefields of the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. But the war also succeeded in breaking through the corseted snobbery of Victorian grande dames and the self-indulgence of Edwardian aesthetes. It gave birth to a new and vital worldview. American forces didn't enter the conflict until April 1917, but the stories they brought back, and the dead they left behind, altered forever the outlook of a nation still riding the wave of Western expansion and pioneer pride. For better and for worse, the Great War was the beginning of our modern era. We live now in a post-apocalyptic age, dating from those days.
Perhaps it is of little interest to the American public today because it is of little interest to Hollywood. The war provides rich material for contemporary British authors; witness Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy and Ben MacIntyre's more recent "A Foreign Field." But it has yet to receive the imprimatur of the international commercial media. It has not been showcased in films such as "Saving Private Ryan" or cable series like "Band of Brothers." It offers no storming of Normandy beaches or heroic rescues at Dunkirk. There is no solitary bad guy, as there is in World War II, no communist threat as in Korea and Vietnam. The Western Front, stretching across France through the valleys of the Somme and the Marne, fluctuated only a few miles in four years. But in those years, Europe was transformed into a continent of single women whose prospective mates had died in the millions.
I first heard tales of the war's devastation from my grandfather, who was 19 when he was wounded not far from Chateau Thierry, an hour's drive from Paris. In middle age, he spoke in generic terms of his heroic comrades, Iowa boys like himself. In early senility, he spoke in detail of struggling across a field under heavy fire. Glancing to the left, he saw a friend's head blown away. He told me, "Never go to war. No matter what." My generation is the last to hear these things firsthand.
During a recent pilgrimage to France, my father, my sister and I sought out the locations where my grandfather had fought and fallen. Learning of our quest, a concierge in Paris bowed to my father, hands clasped, and said, "My respects to you, sir." In Chateau Thierry we found an extraordinary guide, Gilles Lagin, who told us, "I am always remembering what your countrymen did for mine. It is something we must not forget." Indeed, it is easier to remember when every turn in the road brings another small cemetery. It is easy to remember when the ground is still shaped by trenches and craters. It is easy to be mindful when plows still churn up mess kits, unexploded shells and the skeletons of men missing for 89 years.
Armistice Day in America was once an occasion. For American mothers and wives, it marked the day when they knew their men were finally safe. And it honored the tens of thousands who never returned. It was a day that tied us to our allies in Europe. Many of the cemeteries tucked among the hills of France are American. Others are Senegalese or Canadian or English. Many are German. French soldiers and private citizens lie just steps from the allies who fought to protect them and the enemy who attempted to conquer them.
The men who fought their way across those fields have not been honored by Spielberg or Hanks or resurrected in books by Tom Brokaw, but the artistic accomplishment that emerged from the Great War is greater than the popular media can imagine. In America it includes Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" and John Dos Passos's "Three Soldiers." Rupert Brooke's poetry and Siegfried Sassoon's memoirs create a British counterpoint to Erich Maria Remarque's German masterpiece "All Quiet on the Western Front." Perhaps most telling, the war gave us the poetry of a young Englishman named Wilfred Owen. Owen wrote his searing antiwar verse from the front lines so that it could not be dismissed as the work of a coward. He died on the banks of the Sambre Canal just a week before the Armistice.
We should recognize Owen's sacrifice, and my grandfather's, simply because the sacrifice was made, because they and their comrades liberated France from conquering tyranny and because the war itself represents the moment when our modern era began. Armistice Day was meant as a celebration of the peace that came on Nov. 11, 1918, but it served also as a lesson and a warning. We could point and say, "There it is. That's where it all started." The new efficiency of artillery shells had made mass destruction a possibility and then a reality. The use of chlorine gas had made a mockery of the chivalric code, causing a slow, drowning death or, in survival, blindness and chronic illness. Even the negotiations that brought the First World War to an end laid the groundwork for a second, and helped set the tone for a century of violence.
Veterans Day pays tribute to all who have fought for their country, but Armistice Day served us better. Far from a generic honoring of military glory, it recalled to our minds a worldwide conflict that was once called, in hope, the war to end all wars.
Author's e-mail: NormAllenDC@aol.com