Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
As a career military officer and veteran of the Iraq campaign as well as Operation Enduring Freedom I get very reflective around Veteran’s Day. For me it is a melancholy time. I remember those who have gone to war, those who did not come home, and those who came home, especially those who came home wounded in body, mind, or spirit; those who were forever changed by their experience of war.
One of my heroes is T.E. Lawrence, the immortal Lawrence of Arabia. After World War One ended and the politicians, diplomats, and business leaders betrayed those who served, as well as the people of many nations with a terrible peace, Lawrence wrote, “We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”
One hundred and one years ago, in November 1914, millions of soldiers were fighting in horrible conditions throughout Europe. From the English Channel to Serbia, Poland and Galicia; French, British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Serbian and Russian troops engaged each other in bloody and often pointless battles. Often commanded by old men who did not understand how the character of war had changed, millions were killed, wounded, maimed or died of disease.
After four years, with the Empires that were at the heart of the war’s outbreak collapsing one after the other there was an armistice. On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month the shooting stopped and the front lines quieted. By then over 20 million people, soldiers and civilians alike had died. Millions more had been wounded, captured, seen their homes and lands devastated or been driven from there ancestral homelands, never to return.
The human cost of that war was horrific. Over 65 million soldiers were called up on all sides of the conflict, of which nearly 37.5 million became casualties, some 57.5% of all soldiers involved. Some countries saw the flower of their manhood, a generation decimated. Russia sustained over 9 million casualties of the 12 million men they committed to the war, a casualty rate of over 76%. The other Allied powers suffered as well. France lost 6.4 million of 8.5 million, or 73%, Great Britain 3.1 million of nearly 9 million, 35%; Italy 2.2 million of 5.6 million, 39%. Their opponents, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly. Germany sustained 7.1 million casualties of 11 million men called up, or nearly 65%, Austria 7 million of 7.8 million, 90% and the Ottoman Empire 975,000 of 2.8 million or 34% of the soldiers that they sent to war.
It was supposed to be the War to end all War…but it wasn’t, it was the mother of countless wars.
It has been a century since that bleak November of 1914, and ninety-six years since the time where for a brief moment, people around the world, but especially in Europe dared to hope for a lasting and just peace. But that would not be the case…
The victors imposed humiliating peace terms on the vanquished, be it the Germans on the Russians, or the Allies on Germany and her partners. The victors divided up nations, drew up borders without regard to historic, ethnic, tribal or religious sensibilities. But then, it was about the victors imposing themselves and their quest for domination, expanding colonial empires and controlling natural resources rather than seeking a just and lasting peace. The current war against the Islamic State is one of the wars spawned by the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East between the French and the British at the end of the war. It was a war that keeps on giving.
Of course we have known the disastrous results of their hubris, a hubris still carried on by those who love and profit by war…war without end which continues seemingly with no end in sight.
I am a veteran of Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as the Bosnia mission and the Cold War. My dad was a Vietnam veteran who enlisted during the Korean War. I serve because it is the right thing to do, not because I find war romantic or desirable. It is as General William Tecumseh Sherman said “Hell.” If called to go back to Iraq, where I left so much of my soul, I would go in a heartbeat.
This week as we do every year we will pay our homage to honor our veterans, especially in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France. But sometimes it seems so hollow, for in all of our countries those that serve are a tiny minority of those eligible to serve, who are much of the time ignored or even scorned by those that feel that providing for them after they have served is too much of a burden on the wealthy who make their profits on the backs of these soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.
I have walked about since returning from Iraq often in a fog, trying to comprehend how a country can be at war for so long, and there is such a gap between the few who serve and the vast majority for whom war is an abstract concept happening to someone else, in places far away, and whose experience of war is its glorification in video games. Personally I find that obscene, and feel that I live in a foreign world. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:
“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”
Similarly Guy Sajer wrote in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:
“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”
Major General Gouverneur Warren wrote to his wife two years after the American Civil War:
“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”
Sometimes I find it obscene that retailers and other corporations have turned this solemnity into another opportunity to profit. But then why should I expect different? Such profiteers have been around from the beginning of time, but then maybe I still am foolish enough to hope for something different. Please don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the fact that some businesses attempt in at least some small way to thank veterans. I also know there are many businesses and business owners who do more than offer up tokens once a year, by putting their money where their mouth is to support returning veterans with decent jobs and career opportunities; but for too many others the day is just another day to increase profits while appearing to “support the troops.”
As Marine Corps legend and two-time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler Wrote:
“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”
But the marketers of war do not mind, almost Orwellian language is used to lessen its barbarity. Dave Grossman wrote in his book On Killing:
“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”
There is even a cottage industry of war buffs, some of who are veterans seeking some kind of camaraderie after their service, but most of whom have little or know skin in the real game, and at no inconvenience to themselves. As far as the veterans I understand, but as for the others I can fully understand the words of Guy Sajer, who wrote:
“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”
It was to be the War to end all war” but I would venture that it was the war that birthed countless wars, worse tyrannies and genocides; That war, which we mark the end of today, is in a very real and tragic sense, the mother of the wars that have followed. Today, war threatens in so many places; the Middle East, Ukraine, Asia, and Africa. Terrorism has apparently returned with a vengeance. War without end, amen.
As so to my friends, my comrades and all that served I honor you, especially those that I served alongside. We are a band of brothers; no matter what the war profiteers do, no matter how minuscule our number as compared to those who do not know what we do, and those who never will. We share a timeless bond and no one can take that away.
I close with the words of a German General from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel today. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching the general address his troops after their surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.
Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.
In hopes of peace,