Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembrance and forgetting

Andrew Luck's lacerated kidney can wait. Today is about a different wound.

Today is about the wounds that happened when the country wasn't looking, or had lost interest, or had given up trying to understand why the wounds were happening. It's about boys who went off to what they thought would be a great adventure, and came home old men, shattered and hollow-eyed and haunted for the rest of their days by what that great adventure turned out to be instead. It's about scars both visible and otherwise, and the thanks of a grateful nation that often is too busy to thank and too self-absorbed to be grateful.

Today, for me, will always be about what happened at 11 a.m. on  Nov. 11, 1918, when the guns fell silent and the war that did not turn out to end all wars ended. We call it Veteran's Day now, and it's 24 hours when we stop to think about all those aforementioned boys and what they did for us. But before that it was Armistice Day -- the end of the first industrial war in history, and the war that taught us there was no savagery we could not inflict on one another, or even on the Earth itself.

I think about the First World War on this day because this day is not only about remembrance, it's about forgetting, too, because by choosing a day to remember our veterans we acknowledge there are many other days when we choose not to. And nowhere is the forgetting more total, at least in America, than it is on the battlefields of the First World War.

I had the great good fortune to tour some of those battlefields a decade ago, and what struck me about it is how much better the French remember what America did on those fields than we do. If the Korean War goes down in history as the Forgotten War, some of its veterans at least are still around to remind us of its particular horrors. I have talked to some of those veterans -- my uncle, Thomas Huffman, is one of them -- and like veterans of every war they have their stories. Some of them they choose to share; some they cannot bring themselves to, nor likely ever will.

But if the Korean War is the Forgotten War, the First World War is the Obliterated War. All of its veterans, after all, are gone. And America's involvement, from a practical standpoint, lasted only about six months.  And so it's easy to forget that in that half-a-and-year, more American soldiers died than in any war in our history besides the Second World War and Civil War.

The dead are buried beneath plain white crosses in symmetrical rows all over the old Western Front, and the grounds are lovingly kept by the United States government. The living, if they survived the German machine guns and the influenza pandemic that followed, came home to first honor and then forgetting. Because the politicians botched the peace, it would have to be done all over again 20 years later -- and so the veterans of World War I simply became a warmup act, while the veterans of World War II became The Greatest Generation.

And yet if you drive east out of Paris for a couple of hours to Verdun, then drive south to St. Mihiel or north to the Argonne Forest, the landscape itself will not let you forget what happened here between 1914 and 1918. The trenches remain, head-high in places. The grass and trees have grown back, but the terrain beneath them is still a rollercoaster of old shellholes. Here and there, in the wheat fields, are the crumbling remains of old German pillboxes. Here and there, on the old battlefields, are signs in English, French and German, warning you not to get off the path. The ground here, it seems, is still stuffed with unexploded shells that have been sleeping there for a century.

It's why France can't ever forget the Great War. And it's why they'll never forget what the Americans did for them here; in one town deep within the St. Mihiel Salient, there is a statue of an American doughboy, and a street whose name is a date: September 12. It commemorates the date the Americans liberated the town after four years of German occupation.

Not far away, atop an escarpment called Montsec, there is a gleaming marble rotunda. It surveys the old salient, and is visible for miles. It was erected by the United States in 1931 to honor the Americans' first official victory of the war.

On the day we were there, we were the only visitors. Our English guide explained that's the way it usually is. American tourists, he said, hardly ever come here. Like the war itself, it simply isn't on their radar.

Something to remember, perhaps, on this day when we honor the sacrifices made there and everywhere else in our name.

Something to remember every day.

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