I have a strange interest in World War I and World War II. I always have. I observe them like one looks at a gruesome wound someone else has suffered. I wonder about the pain of it, how it happened, why it is so horrible, what it would be like to have suffered it, the healing process, and what the results of such a scar are. I am horrified and yet can’t look away. I studied these wars because out of them came such darkness, and human suffering that I couldn’t understand how people could behave like that to other people. And I also wondered about myself, and how I would behave in such a situation. Studying these wars was a reflective action for me to better understand others and myself.
Like most of us who are fascinated by history, my first awareness and my deepest understandings of these two wars come from reading books. When I was a pre-teen and early teen I devoured books about WWII. A few from that list were: Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry; Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Green; The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Janet Yolen; Briar Rose, also by Yolen; and so many more. I read Corrie Ten Boom’s memoir, The Hiding Place, and books about children who lived in the United States during the war, or children who escaped from Nazi Germany and lived in the United States, and children who didn’t escape at all. Even today, I still read about the wars. I watched, and still watch, movies about many of the same topics. I read children’s histories of the events and poured over pictures from Life. My younger siblings and I even played a bizarre imaginary game, where we were orphaned Jewish children running through the woods and hiding from imaginary Nazi officers trying to chase us down. My brother and sister both wanted to be called “Bullet”. (She once told this story to the parents of one of her Jewish friends and they found it hilarious.)
Although there was less fiction about the first world war readily available for my devouring mind, I was also curious about this war. I read one of the Anne of Green Gables series, Rilla of Ingleside, concerning her daughter, and Rilla’s life during World War I in Canada. I wept over the death of Walter Blythe, the dark eyed poet son of Anne. Even now, thinking about that part of the book I feel my throat close up. The tragedy of his death mirrored the horror of the war I was soon going to learn more about.
In my freshman year of college I took an elective history class (I was an art major but this should have told me something about my future life plans!) about World War I. It was an upper level course taught by two professors (one of whom commuted from Gettysburg and liked to say he “had a Gettysburg address!”) all about the war, and its ramifications. I learned that my sad, but romantic view of the war as seen through Rilla, was so far from the truth as to be almost propaganda.
For years afterwards, I’ve been making the point that all of our modern culture stems from the events of WWI and how these affected art, music, drama, literature and fashion (I’m a blast after a few drinks at a party). Everything in the modern and post-modern era begins with trenches and barbed wire and no man’s land. Without these horrific events we would not have Hemingway, or Fitzgerald, or T.S. Eliot, or the Jazz Age, or the Civil Rights Movement in quite the same way we do have them.
Oh, Hemingway might have written, or the Jazz Age played, and Civil Rights would have come about, but they wouldn’t have been the same, because we wouldn’t have been the same. Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s broken heroes would not have spoken to us with such resonance. The Jazz Age wouldn’t have pulled millions into the carefree, lifeblood beating out on the ivories. The Jazz Age wouldn’t have contributed to the young beat movement, further galvanized by another terrible war in Europe. America wouldn’t have been the bright white hope for the future superhero that it was to millions of disheartened, grieving Europeans. (We wouldn’t have had Superman). Without this war all the young African-American men wouldn’t have seen the division between how they were treated in Europe and how they were treated back home, even after they served their country. We wouldn’t have had World War II. We wouldn’t have had the hippie movement, or Baby Boomers, or a Cold War. None of our world would have existed in quite the same way had these wars not been fought. Had they not been terrible. Had young men and women, and old men and old women, and children not died in the fields and forests and cities of Europe.
Out of all this awfulness some good things did emerge. And yet, when I think of the cold fingers of Fear I don’t imagine Freddy or Jason or werewolves. I think of smoking tree stumps, the thump of big guns, the staccato of machine guns and the sound of a scared young soldier breathing heavily in his gas mask, unsure where to turn, unsure about his safety, and his mission and his place in this mess. I think of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” and how this young poet died in combat shortly before the Armistice, which we celebrate today.
100 years ago his war started, and the effects of it are still being seen in our politics, our culture, our beliefs about the nature of humanity, and our understanding of war. After all of the good that has come out of this terrible war I can only hope that part of that good is that we will remember it and, shuddering, move as a world away from such horrors.
But still, men and women like my brother and sister sign up to serve. Like my brother and sister, they will get deployed to places where small differences are magnified by politicians and powerful people and like my brother and sister, young men and women will be scared, breathing heavily into a gas mask, unsure where to turn or what to do, and what to believe. They will do bad things in the name of good, and they will hurt a new generation who will believe that it is “sweet and good to die for one’s country” or beliefs, or family.
When I think of Veteran’s Day (or Armistice Day, as the Europeans know it) I think of all the people who have been affected by these wars that I was curious about as a child. I think of the stories I read of good and evil, and I think of the lessons I’ve learned about the world being gray, not black and white. I think of how a young generation is used by an older one to fight its battles. And I think of how willingly they do it. How willingly my brother and sister went. And I am awed, but angry. I don’t quite know how to handle the dichotomy of a day like today, when we stop and thank our veterans, and yet don’t learn from them.
I honor veterans not for their combat service, but for their willingness to serve what they believe to be a greater cause. For their bravery and courage and sacrifice even when they know that their government would not do the same for them. For the loneliness and the fear and the awfulness that they cannot talk about. For the pain and the suffering and the boredom they have dealt with. I honor them, but I pray in my heart, to what I’m not sure, that maybe their sacrifice will actually teach us and that we will finally stop, and finally learn how to lay down weapons without forcing our children into our fights.