Friday, November 11, 2016

Day of remembrance

Every year on Veteran's Day I go back there, in my mind. It's been 11 years now since I toured the American sector of the Western Front in France, where the war that did not end all wars, but only ignited endless others, was fought out by American boys in the autumn of 1918.

November 11, the day the guns fell silent, will always be Armistice Day as much as Veteran's Day to me because of that. It ended a war that is mostly forgotten to us now, even though some 54,000 Americans died in six months there and countless others brought nightmares home from it that would last a lifetime. There are neat green cemeteries from the Argonne to Thiaucourt  there now, row upon row of white crosses arrayed in the geometry of remembrance. And, amid the fields of wheat and crumbling old pillboxes and the scars of ancient trenches, there is an immense white dome of marble few Americans ever visit.

I always wonder why that is so, when I think of that place on Veteran's Day. And I always will.

It's an old bromide that we can never thank our veterans enough for their service, and yet somehow we always fall short. If we remember what they did for us in Normandy or Fallujah or on Iwo Jima or Okinawa, we just as readily forget sometimes what they did in Belleau Wood or Frozen Chosin or the killing fields of the Ia Drang Valley. And, more shamefully, we especially forget when they return home.

I have met my share of veterans, in my four decades as a journalist. I have met Korean veterans and Vietnam veterans and, once, 20 years ago, a vet who survived both Tarawa and Okinawa in World War II. And I have met a man who, when he was 23 years old, was shooting down Nazi jets over Europe in a P-51 Mustang.

That particular gentleman's name was Chuck Yeager. Perhaps you've heard about what he did later on, something involving the sound barrier.

In all cases, they are men who've seen and done things no human being should ever see or do, and they will talk about those things only with the most extreme reluctance. It is not that they don't remember. It's that they are unfailingly polite, and don't wish to burden us with old fantastical tales. It feels too much like bragging about things no one should ever brag about.

Everyone who has ever experienced war in closeup knows that last. They leave the bragging to fools and charlatans who, when it was their turn to serve, hid under their beds. One of them, a vile, swaggering gasbag of no particular merit, famously mocked a decorated Vietnam War POW for being captured. But of course our new president-elect now has only the greatest of respect for our veterans.

I won't think about him today. I'll think instead about the no-big-deal humility of Chuck Yeager, and the quiet dignity of the Korean War vets I met 20 years ago, and of so many other men and women of so much more quality and consequence.

Thanks, all of you. Thanks for you service, and your example.

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