One can understand why it was changed from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. We can celebrate veterans with open pride but we turn away from unpleasant things we’d much rather forget. Of course we’d prefer not to look at what makes us uncomfortable. And that is the first world war.
The fighting officially stopped at eleven AM on the eleventh of November one hundred years ago. It was an armistice, defined as an agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time; a truce. Because the issues were not even close to being resolved, after a long weekend, it started up again two decades later.
From an awareness of how we Americans treat history, that which is most important to learn is routinely swept under the rug. Official history is more myth making, propagandizing than objective scholarly research. Erasing certain things is vital.
Growing up in the second half of the twentieth century, World War II figured large. Without doubt, we were the good guys who rescued the world from Nazism. There was appropriate great pride.
And I knew virtually nothing about the first world war but that it was before the second.
Perhaps it speaks to the success of my schooling that I am curious about that which I don’t know. So in recent years I have become a World War One geek. After my introduction through Paul Fussell’s essential The Great War and Modern Memory, my fascination and hunger to learn as much as I could steadily increased. If you want a list of recommended books, I would be happy to provide that. There are so many from so many truly fascinating angles.
I write today to reflect on the centenary of the armistice, the moment of sheer exhaustion from four terribly long blood and mud soaked years of industrialized slaughter. Where nothing was resolved and tens of millions died.
At the start young European boys flocked to escape their 19th century boredom for the glorious manly adventure they’d all dreamed of. And instead of returning as heroes, the often horribly disfigured psychically wounded men were shunted aside. Especially in Germany.
Doubts about reasons for the war mounted steadily over the years as the heretofore unimaginable massacres piled up day after day and virtually nothing was ever gained.
And into this rotten stalemate after winning a second term on the phrase “he kept us out of war” Woodrow Wilson almost instantly flipped and any American who still hewed to his earlier position was considered an enemy and was dealt with most harshly. Though the vast majority across the 48 states had opposed our entry, leaders like “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, liberal Republican senator from Wisconsin, was harshly treated in the upper chamber and in the pro-war press though his constituents still loved him. Across middle America, until the introduction of taxpayer funded fanning of war fever, average Americans had no interest in sending our boys “Over There.”
There was a strong antiwar movement representing all quarters of our culture who had considered Wilson one of their own before his radical flip after the 1916 election. Many innocent people were hurt by the Creel Committee propaganda machine as freedoms were curtailed and gangs beat up “hyphenated Americans.” Now a hundred years later, one of many unresolved questions is “Should we have gone?”
Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary were all empires competing for dominion over virtually the entire planet so they all had reasons to sleepwalk into the war. Asking what might have happened is a legitimate question for historians, even amateurs like me.
If the stalemate had been considered in ways other than mere escalation and entry of new forces, had Germany been allowed to remain in place, would there have been a second world war? And given the reality of Germany now being the de facto leader and dominant power of Europe, what would have been the harm of a more balanced armistice accomplished years earlier?
The exhausted armistice that came on November 11th in that infamous train car may have led to the self-determination in Wilson’s 14 Points—for the victors only. Brutal tribal wars ensued in the defeated countries as the winners created new maps shoring up their own empires. Much of today’s Middle East troubles area direct result of that awful division of the spoils among Britain, France, and the US as those most affected were purposefully left out.
Some today believe a settlement that was fairer to Germany would have created an early European Union. Instead, given that Germany had never seen fighting in their borders and that they had in fact made military gains, Germans were truly shocked at the punishment; they had no idea they were not winning. That did not work out so well now did it.
So a few million horrible deaths later, here we are. Perhaps the best analysis was provided by the final British World War One soldier to die. He said, “It wasn’t worth a single life.”
Burt Cohen served as a New Hampshire state senator from 1990 until 2004. Since 2004, he has hosted the radio show/podcast keepingdemocracyalive.com. He graduated from Windham College with a degree in European History in 1972 and with that and a drivers license he drove an apple delivery truck.