Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day / Veterans Day

Veterans Day. To many, it marks sales. To some, it marks a time for parades. Only too few remember now what it is and what it has been.

In the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the most brutal war the world had ever seen came to an end. A war so brutal and all encompassing that it was simply called "The World War". No one thought that there would ever be another. I've looked at my great-grandfather's census card, and he lists his status as a veteran, and simply "World War". No one then thought there would be the need to pencil in a Roman numeral after it.

Over 20 million people died in that war. I don't think our minds can adequately understand how many people that is. Roughly two and a half times the population of New York City is how I remember it. Imagine that every voice in that city was silenced, the place full only of corpses. It is not possible. I do not think any of us, no matter how long we live, will ever be able to imagine a place of that much death. I hope not, anyway.

Everyone sees the poppies everywhere, the VFW with them in their hands. Or maybe just everyone near military posts. But even the military too often forget why.
It's because of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who wrote this on a piece of paper, on the back of a friend during a lull in the bombing. Like so many, he did not survive to see the end of the war.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It was so ugly that it was called "The War To End All Wars". The war that was going to make us all talk to each other, end petty tyrannies and expansions and evil, end the idea that millions of people need to die because somebody shot the archduke Ferdinand.

Of course, it failed.
We know now that it failed, but the world will never dance and roar as loud as they did then, when they thought they had defeated it forever. Armistice Day was set as a day to remember this peace that would last.

Then the next war came, and it was devoted simply to veterans. The world had grown older, and knew that there would be many more wars to come. There were no superlatives after World War Two. Even now, we anticipate another one.

Today, I remember veterans and soldiers who gave themselves for something they believe in. But I also remember the ugliness of war-not just today, but what happens after. And I encourage everyone to remember those who have given everything not just today, not just in heroics, but every day.

To that end, I also give you "The Last of the Light Brigade", by Rudyard Kipling.

There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !

They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, "Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites."

They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant's order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

They strove to stand to attention, to straighen the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
"You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;
For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an' we thought we'd call an' tell.

"No, thank you, we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write
A sort of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an' couldn't you tell 'em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."

The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with "the scorn of scorn."
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made - "
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

1 comment:

Vic said...

All I have to say about Veteran's Day is in this video: