My grandfather was a small man. We look a lot alike, actually, the same facial features and short, stocky body; though mine has run to fat, you can see that the underlying lines are remarkably similar, down to the creases in our wrists and our downturned mouths; we fill out an Eisenhower jacket[1. For those not familiar, the ‘Ike,’ as it was known, was standard issue in the 1940s; a shortened military jacket with cleanly tailored lines and truly a marvel of garment construction.] in the same way and I know this, intimately, because I have his. It is one of the few things of his I have and I never really knew the man. His stories are all inherited secondhand, from my father, worn and creased at the edges like the images my grandfather took as he traveled the world in the course of his military service.
Today is 11.11, Armistice Day. The generation of soldiers and sailors and marines and pilots first honoured on Armistice Day is gone; the Great War, the War to End All Wars, ended almost 90 years ago and the veterans of the Second World War, people like my grandfather was, are rapidly dwindling away as well, an entire generation of thought and memory in rapid disappearance. World War One was a huge shift in the way we thought about war, society, and ourselves and its memory is almost over, commemorated with poppies and marches in some regions of the world, referencing a poem that a surprising number of people can’t even remember, or have only negative memories of when it’s a part of a tremendous and amazing literary tradition, some of the most amazing works of literature about war emerged from the First World War.
More commonly it’s known as Veterans’ Day, today. It certainly is here in the United States, where it is a federal holiday most people take as an opportunity to enjoy a three day weekend and go on a trip because, like most holidays, the ‘observance’ is moved for convenience since apparently dates are meaningless.
It is estimated that 20 million people died in the First World War. They died in the trenches, an environment filled with mud and maggots and rats and body parts. They died of the flu, they died of preventable infections that set in after sorties, they died when snipers shot them and when they stepped on mines, in sinking ships and crashing planes. That war changed us, fundamentally, as a society, and while we focus on honouring veterans today in many corners of society, what happened in the First World War plays a direct role in how we think about veterans today.
Things people may not know about the First World War: There were conscientious objectors. While people often think this started with Vietnam, people have been refusing to fight in wars for centuries, and they turned out in record numbers during this period. Some people who refused to fight in the war or who couldn’t fight were handed white feathers in an attempt to shame them for their cowardice. People who went to the front but didn’t participate or attempted to desert were shot in an attempt to intimidate the other members of their units. The flu killed more people than military actions did. Intense starvation was experienced in many areas of Europe as a direct consequence of the war, people who were staunch noncombatants suffered directly even though they never raised arms in battle.
People have been struggling with war and conscience for a very long time, and that includes actual veterans who fought in actual wars, not just abstract figures or people who chose not to serve, people who may have regret and any number of other emotions running through them. Right now, many of our veterans are hidden in plain sight. The signature injuries of Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injuries and mental anguish, are not always immediately evident to people who are not attentive. Our veterans drift among us, like ghosts, ignored and relegated to corners because participation in the armed forces is at an all time low and many people have disdain for the military and the people who serve.
I never knew my grandfather. I will never know his war stories because he never told them. I don’t need to know them; I don’t need to know anyone’s war stories, I don’t need to know what people saw and did to honour them. I don’t need to know someone’s politics, I don’t need to know why someone joined the military, I don’t need to know what people think about what they did in the course of their military service. None of this information is my business or is relevant to my own experiences and in this country, where the experiences of others are asserted as property by people who have not lived them, this attitude seems to upset or disturb people, that some things are private and demands to lay them out for inspection are not welcome.
Some of my readers have served in the military or come from military families, as I do, and have a more complex relationship with military service than many progressives are comfortable with. It is easy to make blanket statements about a class of people you are unfamiliar with, harder to do so when you are intimately familiar with them, or are among them. I never knew my grandfather well, but this I do know, that he served in the Navy for his entire adult life, he gave his everything to the Navy and the Navy gave him a lot in return. And that is something I do not like to see people make light of.
To honour those who served is a small thing I can offer for people who have given so much.