Once upon a time a self-styled progressive American president who had only just won re-election on the slogan “he kept us out of war,” led the U.S. into the midst of the bloodiest worldwide conflict in history.
Europeans dubbed it the Great War. Americans today remember it as World War One, and recall it as little more than a precursor of an even more violent Second World War. In reality, Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s justification for entering the war as a freedom crusade, as a “war to end all wars,” was, ultimately, little more than rhetorical cover for what amounted to a war in support of one group of empires, the British and French, against another, German and Austrian.
Indeed, in a certain sense, it was a bankers’ war. While the ostensibly “neutral” United States acceded to the British Navy’s starvation blockade of Germany, Washington simultaneously traded war materials with its Anglo brothers and flouted London vital loans numbering in the billions of dollars. Clearly, by 1917, after three years of macabre massacre, Washington had a pecuniary interest in British victory.
That may not be the version of First World War history that most Americans learned in elementary or high school. Even less well known is the cynicism and civil liberties suppression of the “Progressive”-in-chief, President Wilson. His strongman tactics: imprisonment of peaceful antiwar activists under the Sedition Act, detainment of pacifists in prison camps, and prosecution of critical journalists under the (still statute law) Espionage Act, are abhorrent enough. Worse still, however, was the reflexive manner in which the progressive “left” quickly fell in line with their president. The left eats its own; maybe it always has. Immense majorities of “progressives,” just like their socialist brethren in Europe, supported Wilson and the war in spite of past records of more dovish positions. They then proceeded to attack, suppress, and often professionally ruin, or imprison, their former compatriots – relabeled as “radicals” – such as Randolph Bourne and Eugene Debs.
Nonetheless, for all of World War I’s horror, futility, absurdity even, the veterans of the war collectively emerged from the sodden trenches imbued with a vocal philosophy of never again. Indeed, they celebrated the moment the guns finally fell silent, the 11th minute, or the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, 1918, as Armistice Day. It was, romantic as it now seems, widely believed that theirs would be the last war. In fact, millions of lucky survivors left the war deeply dedicated to ensuring that be the case. Much of the finest Western literature of the 20th century, unsurprisingly, generated from the pens of disgruntled, damaged veterans – Hemingway, Graves, Fitzgerald, Sassoon, and many more – forever changed by the experience of needless war.
It was only 20 paltry years later and another world war that the celebration of Armistice Day – inherently imbued with hopes for a more peaceful future – had to be lifelessly renamed (in America, at least) Veterans’ Day. The “beauty” of today’s November 11 celebration is its very anodyne nature. There are no hopes, no dreams, no politics even, associated with a day that’s come to symbolize and mandate little more than a brief pause to vapidly “thank” the nearest veteran for his or her “service.”
What’s more, Americans in 2019, a century and a year removed from the original day, not only know almost nothing about the holiday’s history, but are treated to a reboot of that history first as tragedy, now as farce. Neoconservative establishment Republicans certainly own much of the responsibility for the nation’s current ongoing forever wars. That must be said. Nonetheless, the supposed “left,” is once again enabling perpetual, unwinnable, mostly unsanctioned, combat.
Much of this has to do with what I’ve long labeled Trump derangement syndrome, the reflexive penchant of Democrats to oppose all that this president is for and to support all that he’s against. It runs both ways. That’s why we have a crackpot Congress in which Dems only vote against the wars Trump likes. Those he (mostly rhetorically) dislikes, well, they love. See, for them, it’s about politics, not patriotism. Partisanship, not prudence. And no, I’m hardly obviating Republican complicity in the tribal game that treats today’s veterans as little more than proxies and pawns in a sardonic gambit based, not on their well-being, but on which party earns “a win” prior to the next national election.
The game is rigged, and we ain’t in it! For proof, pay attention this Monday as both Dem and Republican politicians, both red and blue media, hyperbolically (and frankly embarrassingly) extoll the virtues of America’s soldiers who kill and die for about $30k a year, who are still deployed in dozens of combat zones that few citizens could locate on a map. That’s evidence, and it’s instructive. My fellow veterans don’t necessarily need more thanks. We need, instead, your attention, your support, your careful deployment of our energies and sacrifices only in defense of the most vital national interests and the homeland itself. Most of all we need the reinvigorated dream of Armistice Day – a holiday imbued with hopes and dreams for a better world. At the very least, for a nation that chooses not to wage forever war.
This article has been republished with permission from The American Conservative.
[Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons - public domain]
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and a regular contributor to the American Conservative. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.