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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The somber message of Veterans Day

    As another Veterans Day rolled around this year, I found myself feeling more somber than usual. Every year, we commemorate our country’s veterans, and every year, we make noble noises about “”never forgetting.”” Yet, we have forgotten.

    The other day, after reading yet another testimonial to the heroes of World War II, I found myself wondering what had happened to those of World War I. Why did we never hear a word about them? Were any of them even still alive?

    As it turns out, only one American veteran of World War I – Frank Buckles, 104, of West Virginia – is still alive. Ten died in the last year, to little notice. The government never kept tabs on WWI veterans, and there is no national monument to the 116,000 Americans who died in it. How many students know that the fountain in front of Old Main, an ordinary fountain everyone passes every day, is to honor the students who died in that long-ago war?

    I’ve heard World War I referred to as “”the forgotten war”” – but I’ve also heard the Korean War called that. “”Afghanistan in danger of becoming forgotten war,”” said a headline on Yahoo News the other day.

    In truth, most of our wars have been forgotten. Apart from World War II, relived on the History Channel on a daily basis, we tend to forget about wars the second we’re through with them.

    For Europeans, a uniquely tragic air surrounds World War I. Millions of soldiers – most of them barely out of adolescence – marched off thinking of war as a great adventure, and millions of them got a hard, horrible lesson in what it really was. We got the same lesson, but we shrugged it off. As soon as the war was over, we wanted to forget.

    Most veterans, I’ve noticed, don’t like to talk about war. When they talk about their experiences, they’ll talk about the camaraderie they felt with their fellow soldiers, or the bad food, or the places they saw. But the actual experience of being at war is something no one much wants to remember.

    That experience is not one that can be shared by watching a war movie, even a good one, any more than watching a murder on a television show could prepare you for witnessing a real murder. I don’t know what it’s like. Nor do most Americans, but that doesn’t stop them from acting as if they do.

    It doesn’t stop politicians who’ve never seen a trench or a tank from voting to send troops into battle, nor does it stop pundits from calling for a “”hard line”” on misbehaving foreign countries, even if that hard line means starting a war. It doesn’t stop many of us from regarding war lightly, from dismissing pacifists as cowards or appeasers, from wondering why we can’t just blow up a few cities and end the Iraq War right now.

    “”The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here,”” said Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, “”but it can never forget what they did here.”” But we did forget. We remembered the speech, but we forgot the smell of death, the mangled bodies, the unspeakable horror of Americans turning their guns on each other.

    The Civil War was our World War I, the most traumatic event in our history – and we remember it, if at all, as a list of battle names. A hobby for middle-aged men. There’s no national holiday to commemorate it. There’s no national memorial to the victims of slavery, either – because there’s probably no one alive today who ever knew a slave. Who cares? It’s the past; move on.

    So little time separates us from stories that seem like they took place 1,000 years ago. The last veteran of the forgotten 1898 Spanish-American War died in 1992. For that matter, the last veteran of the ancient American Revolution didn’t die until 1869. The last Civil War veteran died in 1958. None of it, really, was all that long ago.

    Yet time is cruel, and it only takes a handful of extra decades to cast any event into the ancient, unreachable past.

    Several Veterans Days ago, my family and I were standing in a Tucson cemetery paying tribute to a relative who died during the Vietnam War. As we walked through the graves, most of them decorated with flowers and cards, my eyes turned to a much older section of the cemetery. There were no decorations on those gravestones because there was no one left who remembered any of them.

    You couldn’t look at those unadorned gravestones without reflecting that once they were decorated with flowers – and that one day, all these carefully tended gravestones, too, would be bare and neglected.

    What did any of it mean, in the end? I wondered. What good did it do to fight, if this was what it all came to?

    Veterans Day, lest we forget, was once called Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, which many thought would be the very last war of all. No one would ever say that about any war again.

    That is the only lesson all of us have learned from war: one more is always on the horizon.

    Justyn Dillingham, the wire editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat, is a senior majoring in history and political science. He can be reached at letter@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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