Last week, on Nov. 11, we celebrated Veterans Day here in the United States, mostly by posting happy pictures of fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, daughters, etc., on Facebook. But that particular date, unlike some random Monday or Friday, commemorates something far more deadly and terrible than cheerful pictures of healthy young men and women suggest.
Veterans Day specifically commemorates the practical end of World War I, when the ceasefire on the Western Front began at the 11th hour of the 11th Day, in the 11th month.
We still live in the long shadow of World War I, although we don’t think much about it here in the States. For Americans, World War II seems more material and meaningful, in part because we were more involved in its resolution and because we’ve been romanticizing that war in movies for 75 years now.
But the “war to end all wars” was the seminal event in the modern world. Europe was changed forever, as hereditary aristocracies, which had been the ruling norm since the collapse of the Roman Empire, were utterly obliterated. The Romanovs in Russia, the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburgs in Austria were destroyed by the war.
The most important single event of the 20th century was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The most important single person of the 20th century – Vladimir Lenin — was brought to power by the war, and the conflict left us with his Bolsheviks ruling Russia. English cannibalism of the Ottoman Empire left us with generational problems in the Middle East, which are only now starting to be resolved.
The inability of the post-Christian elites in Europe to forgive and reintegrate the losers into international society on non-destructive terms led directly to World War II, as did the partitioning of the German-speaking world, the vitiation of Austria’s preference to join Germany, and the creation of territorial oddities such as the Polish Corridor.
The savagery of the war caused the long, terrible exhaustion of continental Europe as a world power and marked the beginning of the end of colonialism.
The First World War was incredibly destructive. It started with cavalry and chivalry and ended up with tanks, airplanes, machine guns and chemical warfare. For the first time in western history, combatants tried to starve the entire civilian population of their adversaries.
More than 17 million soldiers and citizens died during the conflict, and another 20 million died during the Spanish Flu epidemic that followed the war. This was in a world of fewer than 2 billion people, or about one-quarter of our current global population.
Finally, and most terribly, the war ended unreflecting confidence in science, progress and reason. Not surprisingly, it sowed cynicism and doubt of elites across societies.
In the United States, Veterans Day has become a marginalized and homogenized celebration of military service, detached from the horror and destruction of total war that it was meant to commemorate.
War is a terrible thing, and total war destroys or changes everything and everyone it touches. That’s why we need to be straightforward and clear-eyed about starting them, fighting them and winning them.
Our future veterans – the current soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen — deserve no less. The best way to thank them for their service? Be certain about why and the extent to which you want them to kill people on your behalf.
The best way to honor veterans is to win the fights to which the nation sent them. Carrying on their work of creating a more just and more free world and seeing it through to completion is much better and more important than thanking them.
In 1915, on the battlefield at Ypres, Col. John McCrae wrote the elegiac poem “In Flanders Fields.” It speaks directly to finishing the fight and staying the course.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row…
Take up our quarrel with the foe/to you from failing hands we throw
The torch/be yours to hold it high.
If you break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Even now, the American Legion distributes lapel pin poppies as a reminder on Veterans Day of the sacrifices that have been made and the work that remains before us.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.