The armistice ending World War One, also known as the “Great War” was signed on this day in 1918. The idea behind Armistice turned Veterans Day, was to remember the price paid by servicemen living and dead. A visit to Arlington Cemetery provides a sobering, powerful lesson in the extraordinary price paid by those who gave ‘Their Last Full Measure’, to quote President Lincoln.
Row after exact row, rank and file marble headstones arc the green, rolling acreage of Mary Custis Lee’s childhood plantation. Surveying this overwhelming vista, proof of the price paid by those in arms raises a difficult, perhaps unanswerable question. How can Americans best provide solace, comfort and justice for our fighting men and women?
One option is pictured above. While I was still in the classroom, my History Club provided Christmas gifts for those on duty overseas. We wrapped, labeled, and itemized customs slips–mailing the boxes to APO addresses nearly everywhere. The soldiers pictured expressed their appreciation by sending this group photo, letting us know the packages had made it on time. Oddly enough, I don’t think they even cared what the boxes contained, it was simply being remembered while serving so far away. One soldier thanked us for adding a hometown newspaper sports section. It was the link to home that meant so much.
“Support Our Troops,” bumper stickers scold incessantly next to exhaust pipes. Do gift packages overseas meet that test? What about promised services, and psychiatric aid from the Veterans Administration to those returned? Is it enough to purchase artificial poppies from elderly veterans planted in front of grocery stores on this day? Honestly how can we best “Support Our Troops?”
A former student visited my classroom after serving a double tour in Iraq. He bore that “Five Hundred Foot Stare,” so common to soldiers scarred by the horror of battle. In an earnest voice he explained, “We build schools for them (the Iraqis) during the day, and they try to kills us at night.” This sweet, insulated, middle class boy, born in Idaho, raised on John Wayne movies, could not comprehend the absence of welcome from the Iraqi people. They not only failed to show gratitude, but lashed out in lethal hostility. How do I support him?
I am reminded of two messages that resonate from two memorable episodes in my career. The first came from the Chaplain of the House of Representatives in his opening prayer at the World War Two Memorial dedication in Washington. This minister reminded the gathering “that peace is not the absence of war, but the nearness of God.” I felt not only wise calm in his words, but a new truth in his prayer.
Then there was the sage Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu who has offered his own advice from ancient times. This brilliant military strategist observed that “the best wars are those not fought.”
Gail Chumbley is a historian and author of River of January, her new memoir.