World War 1 remembrance day

Remembrance & the War That Ended Nothing

At 11:00 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War—after some four years, three months, seven days, and 16-20 million lives—was over. According to the armistice signed early in the morning of that day, the Central powers—Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire—had lost. The following decades would suggest that at least some of them didn’t really believe it. Not all the way down.

Even then it was a near thing, to be sure. Russia had abandoned the fight a year earlier, freeing up tens of thousands of war-hardened German soldiers to redeploy to the western front, where they would very nearly overrun the exhausted French and British forces. While America had joined the Allied cause the spring before, by the time of the German spring offensive of 1918 the US had still not committed significant forces to the fray. When it finally did so in mid-1918, the resurgent Allies stalled the German offensive. A ghastly near-half-year later, it was over.

Perhaps bizarrely, and certainly consequentially, despite the German army being on the verge of a total rout, the war ended with an armistice agreed rather than a surrender accepted. Both then and now, the prudence of the armistice is strongly doubted.

“We shouldn’t have done it,” suggested General John J. Pershing, the commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces. “If they had given us another ten days we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it.” Pershing’s dissent has been attributed to unrelenting competitive nature—or his hunger for personal glory. But he himself offered a different explanation:

The German troops today are marching back into Germany announcing that they have never been defeated… What I dread is that Germany doesn’t know that she was licked.

Pershing believed that a premature cessation of hostilities short of capitulation would postpone, if not render impossible, the imposition of satisfactory peace terms. History would seem to judge him correct. The Treaty of Versailles, the negotiated peace agreement, was a disaster. As Victor Davis Hanson notes in a fine essay, it was “at once too harsh and too soft… the Allies proved unforgiving to a defeated Germany in the abstract, but not tough enough in the concrete.”

Hanson’s essay considers the lessons of the failed peace, culminating in the simple observation that after WWI we can no longer believe just because “the shooting stops, the war is necessarily over.” In the forthcoming Providence print edition, I argue a similar line. I suggest that wars are best fought to decisive, even when limited, ends. That’s to say they should be fought to be won. Winning may—as it would in the Second World War—mean unconditional surrender, or it may more modestly mean only that our deployment of force is sufficient to convince the adversary to cease a particular behavior.

These may be grim thoughts to voice on this of all days. But the only kind of war ethic that is worth advocating is one which does not see a contradiction in hoping for peace but engaging in war, even as we weep over it after the fact. This is to stress that there is no contradiction in loving your enemy and fighting to win. Remembrance Day—Veterans Day in the United States, though, really it has become a different holiday—includes a set of duties that are owed to those who have fought, and especially to those who died fighting, our wars. This duty is given poetic mandate by John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

McCrae was a British army surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. The vicious fighting there, characterized by incessant artillery barrages, churned again and again the rich Belgian soil of Flanders. Seeds lay dormant in that loam. Now, exposed to sunlight and water, poppies bloomed among the dead over the torn and broken landscape. Delicate and blood-red, the flowers came to symbolize the shattered boys who gave everything and from whom everything was taken. At the poem’s end, McCrae reminds the living to carry on the fight, to honor the fallen.

In England today, this mandate to remember is depicted by the wearing of red poppies. Corresponding duties surely include the duty to speak the truth about war. This is not always done. On one side, it is not done by those who refuse to acknowledge that human sinfulness means that war can sometimes not be avoided.

Some such folks demonstrate this by wearing white poppies instead of red. While their precise provenance appears to be in dispute, the white poppy’s contemporary meaning seems rather clear. The Peace Pledge Union, a secular pacifist organization in the UK, started selling them in the early 1930s to symbolize “peace” and to launch their campaign for a “warless world.” According to their website, the Peace Pledge Union endeavors against the militarization of Armistice Day and offers what they term an “Alternative Remembrance Day.” The Union’s eponymous pledge, proclaimed by its supporters, is as follows:

War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war.

While the last sentence somewhat improves things, the pledge remains trite and foolish in the main. The Union itself confuses things when they profess elsewhere that “human beings have a right to live with dignity and security, and an obligation to help each other when that security is threatened.” Precisely how they suggest helping one another if, in the last resort, and with war off the table, nothing but force will stop an aggressor from violating victims is a mystery.

In the real conditions of our world—attested to by reason, revelation, and history and with little evidence to the contrary—pacifism cannot reliably provide for the security of anyone. By renouncing war at all costs, you do nothing to prevent violence. You only allow for the practical result that violence will only ever be used to victimize, never to rescue victims.

The failed peace of WWI, the War to End All Wars, proves that sometimes those who mean evil cannot be talked out of their evildoing. So they have to be knocked out of it.

On this Remembrance Day, of all days, we recall the tragic costs of it all. In the moment of silence that will commence at 11:00 a.m., in the peel of the muffled church bells that will follow, we remember with great grief the loss of every life on both sides of no man’s land. Within every lost soul were the dormant seeds of potential generations that were snuffed out, like lamp lights, all across Europe. One falls and countless generations will never rise.

This is a great sorrow. Neither necessity nor moral sanction obviates our duty to acknowledge that.

In a fitting epitaph to the great and terrible war, John Maxwell Edmonds recalled the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos’ tribute to the fallen at the Battle of Thermopylae:

When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrows these gave their today.

There are times when, despite all our efforts to avoid conflict, nothing but the sword will stop the charging hordes.

May we remember that today, and prepare for tomorrow.

Marc LiVecche is the executive editor of Providence.

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