Armistice Day was originally about war’s end. As we remember veterans, we should also recall the ravages of military conflict
My father returned to the United States from the Great War in Europe with a leg full of lead, a chest full of medals, and a head full of demons. He was one of the lucky survivors. Once a year, he attended a meeting of his old regiment to remember the men they had lost and honor the peace they had learned to cherish. The occasion was then called Armistice Day, a day dedicated not to war but to war’s end.
Every year he pinned a blood red paper poppy to his lapel and went off to celebrate peace with his fellow veterans, even though the meetings sometimes seemed to trigger nightmares that caused him to destroy a hotel room or leap from a window, still asleep.
The regiment possessed a bottle of champagne, brought home from France and meant to be the prize eventually of the last man standing. My lucky father lived another 60 years, long enough to be among the final contenders, though as a recovering alcoholic he wouldn’t have been able to drink the precious champagne.
His powerful nightmares stayed with him to the end.
He lived out what appeared to be a fairly successful, civic-minded life in the enduring shadow of war. He rarely spoke of it, but as the United States began to build a foreign policy of military might, he told me that wars are made by men who have never been to war – men who don’t know that wars, once started, never end. Over the years, his own relentless war receded from public to private life. As a result, I grew up in its shadow.
Which may help to explain why, in my own dwindling years, I’ve written a book about some of the young people – just kids, really – shipped home from the most recent of Washignton’s endless wars on a stretcher, in a box, or in an altered state of mind. As a reporter, I followed that trail of waste and sorrow and became a witness to the damage war inflicts on the children of its own most arrogant practitioners.
European interest in war-making died in 1945, just when America was getting the hang of it. The US has been flexing its muscles ever since, bullying this nation and that, bombing here, invading there, raining destruction from the air on individual “enemies” and unwitting civilians alike, killing hundreds of thousands, sending millions into flight, declaring war not on nation states but on tactics (terrorism) or individuals (Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, et al), and projecting its military might around an increasingly apprehensive planet. Military force – and a kind of madly paranoid listening in on everybody – replaced diplomacy as the first tool of American statecraft.
By 1954, the year after the Korean War ended, the United States had already launched enough interventions, police actions, covert operations, and flat-out wars that …read more