Reflections on Armistice Day

I’m just off the plane from France, where I combined the OpenStack Summit with a family vacation. As we landed, the American flight attendant explained to the plane that it was Veteran’s Day in the U.S., which means that we thank our veterans for their service. I was bitterly amused.

Why?

In Europe November 11th is Armistice Day. It celebrates the day peace was made at the end of the “War To End All Wars”–WWI. When I lived in the Pas de Calais, where most of it was fought, it was still living memory for old folks, a somber day of wearing black and visiting graves, and remembering the horrors of that time, and being thankful for peace. I found it horribly ironic that this woman, who clearly had no notion of the history of this particular date, felt she was positioned to teach half the plane about it.

In the north of France, there are monuments to WWI dead in every village square. Every one. There were over a quarter of million dead, 160,000 or more of them French, from the Battle of Verdun alone. Various WWI artifacts still turn up when people do their gardening. And then there are the crumbling concrete bunkers from WWII all along the coast. And shell craters, grassed in but still visible, of the same vintage. People with old barns will tell you whether this or that hole was from the War of ’40, the War of ’14, or the War of ’70. (That’s 1870, yet another time that Germany marched through the Low Countries and the north of France.) At a Sunday dinner one time, my hostess, a teen during WWII, with memories of running for the backyard bomb shelter and making it with seconds to spare, made some flippant, offhand remark about Petain. Her stepmother, also present, spoke up very sharply: “You don’t know what it was like then, in the teens! Petain did what he could to save France!” That’s not a view you’ll ever find in any history book, of course. But maybe it was the lesser of two evils; in the grand scheme of things, who’s to say? Reality rarely presents obviously right or wrong choices.

Interesting, isn’t it, that instead of focusing on peace, we in the US ritualistically focus on the warriors, instead? From many, it sounds rote–lip-service patriotism that’s easily tossed off by those who have no notion of what it means. It occurs to me that because it’s been so long since we’ve had war in our own backyards, we tend, as a nation, to be rather blithe about involving ourselves–and our young men and women–in others’.

I have several friends who have fought overseas in the last decade. A few have alluded to their private struggles to come to terms with their experiences–only in the broadest of terms, but along with the stories from my European friends and their families, of Vietnamese friends and theirs…they’re all remarkably similar. There are plenty of difficult, even ugly decisions made in tortured circumstances, perhaps many more than moments of heroism–survival situations have their own moral logic. Shaping a narrative that attempts to rationalize that logic when in a peaceful context involves all manner of mental contortions, and then more mental energy to maintain it…

After WWI they spoke of shellshock, but no one knew what to do about it, and so millions of ex-soldiers and civilians alike suffered quietly on their own, sometimes turning on themselves–suicide was exceedingly high–others on those around them. Today we have a different name, PTSD, and an official catalogue of symptoms, but do little more about it than we did 100 years ago. My friends who served are still finding their way, with varying success, mostly on their own. This, to me, is as much a tragedy as all the rest.

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