Next Monday, Nov. 11, is Veterans Day, the day dedicated to honoring all American veterans, living and dead. There will be ceremonies in The Observer towns, sponsored by various organizations and with varying programs.
But they should all have one thing in common: a moment of silence at 11 a.m.
Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, and it marked the exact moment the guns of World War I fell silent: 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Perhaps it is for that reason that I, personally, although honoring all our living U.S. vets — as they should be honored — have always felt a closer bond that day to the fallen. Especially the fallen of the Great War.
Next year will bring the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict, and I daresay today’s younger generations live in ignorance of the 1914-18 slaughter.
Is it even still taught in schools? Perhaps in the U.K. it is, but I have my doubts about U.S. education. Hell, in the U.K., they’re still writing songs about it. (Search YouTube for “The Road to Passchendaele.”) In the U.K., people will be wearing poppies this week. When was the last time you saw a poppy here? How many people even know what the flower signifies?
In any case, to me, Nov. 11 will always be inextricably bound to World War I, with which I have a, some might say “morbid,” fascination. It can’t be other than morbid, considering the sheer number of dead.
Some perspective: In the last 12 years, some 6,760 American troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to one source, on the first day — repeat, day — of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British overall casualty toll was about 60,000, “of whom 21,000 had been killed, most in the first hour of the attack, perhaps the first minutes.” (John Keegan, “The Face of Battle.”)
Can you comprehend that? Nearly 21,000 slain? In one hour? Or less?
Entire libraries have been written analyzing the reasons for the terrible butchery of World War I, so I am not about to try to do that here. I merely want to acknowledge the horrific loss of life. Of lives. Of individuals who had their whole lives ahead of them and who were doomed to became part of a lost generation.
The United States, which did not enter the war until April 1917, sent more than 4 million troops to the Western Front, of whom 110,000 died before cessation of hostilities in November 1918. Of that total, an estimated 43,000 were felled, not in battle, but by the Spanish Flu epidemic that was sweeping the globe. They still died as heroes in the service of their country.
So, on Monday, I shall attend a Veterans Day ceremony, and keep the moment of silence, and remember both the living and the dead.
For the living, I can shake their hands and say a sincere, “Thank you for your service.” As I hope you do, too.
For the dead, I can only pray. As I hope you do, too.