Friday, November 11, 2011


(an annual post)

Have you forgotten yet ?
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz – The nights you watched and wired and dug...?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again ?’ . . .
Have you forgotten yet ?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon “Aftermath, March 1919.”

Today is Veterans Day in the United States. In part because the calendar is crowded with holidays, Veterans Day replaced an older holiday, known as Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of the First World War, surely the most needless, tragic, but consequential war of modern times. Canada, Australia and the other British Commonwealth nations, very appropriately, call today “Remembrance Day.” World War I is ancient history to most of us, yet this conflict, the war that in many ways brought down Armageddon, is with us, always. Pause, friend, for a moment, wherever you are, and remember.

At ten minutes past 5 a.m., on the morning of 11 November, the German armistice delegation, meeting with their allied counterparts in a railway car near the French city of Compiegné, accepted the Allied terms for an armistice. The Germans found the terms harsh (although they were no harder than those they had forced on the Russians in 1917) and they signed under protest.

Although the Germans had agreed to quit, the fighting did not stop until 11 a.m.: the dying that went on the rest of that long morning as pointless and futile as the whole war. In the Argonne, future President Harry Truman's artillery battery was in action, firing until it had no more ammunition at 10:45 a.m. Just east of Mons, Belgium, a Canadian soldier, Private George Lawrence Price, was fatally shot by a sniper at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the cease-fire, the last of over 60,000 Canadians to perish.

The cease-fire came, but the dying did not stop. The Allied naval blockade of the defeated Central Powers remained in place -- and it was rendered more effective by Allied access to the Baltic Sea. With agriculture and transport disrupted by the war and the political chaos in Central Europe, thousands died of malnutrition, mostly the aged and children. Meanwhile, bankrupted and bereaved survivors, particularly in the defeated countries, now demanded an accounting from their leaders, and tried to understand what it had all been for, and why this had happened.

When historians look back upon our times, they will probably agree that the 21st Century really began on 11 September 2001. Similarly, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year old Bosnian-Serb revolutionary bandit, member of a terrorist organization familarly called the Black Hand, the al Qaeda of its time, effectively began the 20th Century about 11:15 a.m. on 28 June 1914 when he murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg by a bridge in Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite their exalted titles, the dead prince, his wife and their three now orphaned children were, in some ways, quite ordinary; and their ruined family was only the first of millions to come. A month and a week from the murders, after multiple diplomatic fiascos no novelist could invent, that seem impossible to believe today, all Europe was at war.

Ninety years later, Sarajevo was the scene of more violence, this time between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, quarreling over the make-up of the post-Cold War Balkans. The 20th Century thus ended where and as it begin, in Sarajevo, in blood, with another war that nobody would win.

The 1990’s violence in the former Yugoslavia, like almost everything else in modern diplomacy, stemmed from the war that Princip helped begin, and which people tried to begin ending today in 1918. Over 10 million dead bodies later, the war he and a baker’s dozen of incompetents started ended today, in 1918.

Officially ended, anyway. How can an atrocity like the First World War ever truly end?  Fought over nothing, ending in no victory for anyone, except political cranks, left wing and right wing radicals, demagogic ideologues and other fanatics. The road to Auschwitz, Hitler and Stalin runs straight from the murder scene in Sarajevo, through the railroad siding in Compiegn√© where the armistice was signed. The Second World War killed more, in raw numbers, than the First – but the later war was only a continuation made possible by the poisons unleashed in the first war.

Satan had a good day of it in Sarajevo in June 1914. If not for the murderer Princip, and the clumsy diplomats and generals who blundered Europe and the world into a war everyone but the crazies lost, whoever would have heard of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini ? Lenin would have rotted away in exile with his books and scribblings; Hitler no doubt would have died in deserved obscurity in some Vienna doss-house. Stalin would have met the inevitable fate of a bank robber; and Mussolini perhaps never left journalism. No collapse of the British Empire forcing America onto the world stage to redress the great-power balance. No Great Depression, no Nazis, no World War II or Holocaust, no Cold War. Maybe no collapse of the Ottoman Empire giving us, ultimately, Bin-Laden, Zarqawi, Hamas and suicide bombers.

But Gavrilo Princip fired his fatal bullets, and the whole edifice of civilization crumpled before them. The shots of Sarajevo echo still. Gentle reader, think today of his crime, and of all whom, unknowing, ultimately paid. Because of the shots in Sarajevo, men who had no reason to hate each other fought and murdered each other all over the world in job lots -- in the fields of Champagne, on the roads of Poland and in the snows of Russia, in Iraq and in China. Children died in the cold Atlantic and starved by the million in Russia, the mountains of Armenia, and the Balkans. Sleepy eastern Europe, so long a quiet agricultural backwater, twice in fifty years was turned into an abattoir.

Beyond the seas, America lost its isolation. Americans died in the Argonne and, thirty years later, in the Pacific and in the deserts of Africa; later in the jungles of Vietnam. Today US Marines are dying in the hills of Afghanistan, all in some way because of, or related to the acres of warehouses of cans of worms opened by Princip.

Besides the legions of killed, maimed and wounded, the war had other, more insidious effects. Along with butchering millions, the First World War killed the faith of the western peoples in their civilization -- in progress, parliamentary institutions, science and religion, and left us instead the poison fruits of Communism, Nazism, and Socialism. The west, outside of America (for a time) lost confidence in itself -- at some level even in its right to exist as a culture. Germany and Russia, gravely wounded in both body and spirit, led the turn away from God, progress, law and civilization, and burned books and millions of their own citizens. Britain, mother of Parliaments, the law and of the United States, withered -- crippled and bankrupted both by the war and its 1939 continuation; and its political class today quivers in fear of criticism by modernity's ascendant barbarians.

But today, in 1918, on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh month, of the eleventh day – war, for the moment, ended. Think of all war dead today, dear reader. But, almost 100 years on, spare a thought for a moment or two for all the dead of the Great War, so pointless, so long ago, but so horribly, tragically important.

Veterans Day, 2011

When you go home,
Tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow,
We gave our today.

Inscription, British War Memorial, Kohima, India.(attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds, Times Literary Supplement [London], 4 July 1918).

As our soldiers, sailors and aviators struggle and stand on guard for us throughout the world, particularly today in Iraq and Afghanistan, pause in your business for a moment, and think of them, and of our veterans who have already served. Remember those who are not with us today, because they made the ultimate sacrifice. Think, also of their families at home, who bear their own scars incurred in coping with the absence and perils of their often far away loved ones.

In particular, I am remembering in my own prayers today (and every year on this day) five US Navy casualties of the Battle of Midway (4 June 1942). Samuel Adams, Lieutenant (j.g.) USN (Scouting Squadron 5, USS Yorktown), holder of three Navy Crosses, who did as much as anybody -- more actually -- to win the battle; Wesley Frank Osmus, Ensign USNR, (Torpedo Squadron 3, USS Yorktown), Frank Woodrow O’Flaherty, Ensign USNR (Scouting Squadron 6, USS Enterprise), and Bruno P. Gaido (Aviation Machinist's Mate (1st Class)) -- O'Flaherty's gunner. Lieutenant Adams and his radioman/gunner, Joseph Karrol (Aviation Radioman (2nd Class)) were presumed killed in action near the battle's end. Osmus, O'Flaherty and Gaido were all US aviators shot down and captured during the attacks on the Japanese fleet, and subsequently murdered by their captors. They each faced their fates alone, but they are never forgotten.

Went the day well ?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill, Freedom, we died for you.

John Maxwell Edmonds, Times [London], 6 February 1918.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy 236th Birthday, Marine Corps!

On 10 November 1775, before the United States was yet a country, the Continental Congress created what became the United States Marine Corps, the resolution of that date providing for the raising of two battalions of Marines. Legend has it that the first Marine recruiting post was in a bar (most say Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, although the precise identity of the hostelry is in dispute).

Recruiting had produced five weak companies 300 strong by December 1775, and in March of 1776 the Marines found themselves on ships headed for the Caribbean for the first of their many amphibious expeditions (raiding the Bahamas). The Corps has been carrying our flags around the globe ever since, participating with distinction in every American war (even in the Civil War, on both sides -- there was once a Confederate States Marine Corps). US Marines chased pirates and fought Seminoles in Florida, took a tour of Mexico (the Halls of Montezuma in the song), and once even patrolled rivers in China.

It is altogether typical that on their Corps’ 236th birthday, America’s Marines are carrying the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan, just as their fathers, cousins and brothers did before them in Iraq, Kuwait, Grenada, at Hue City, the Chosun Reservoir, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, Tarawa, Guadalcanal, Corregidor, Wake Island, Belleau Wood, the Argonne, Peking, Nicaragua, Mexico City, Tripoli and a million other places. Happy Birthday Marines! Thanks to all of you for your service, and may God be with you and your families, today and every day.