On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, what until then had been commonly called “The War To End War” or “The Great War” ended when Germany and its allies, Italy and Austria, gave up the fight they had begun and grudgingly signed a peace accord with Great Britain, France, Russia and the United States (which belatedly joined the conflict in 1917 and became an important factor in its outcome).
One year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 to be Armistice Day and then, in 1954, Congress voted to change its name to Veterans Day, and that is what Americans are observing today. It is not to be confused with Memorial Day, which has been set aside as a somber day to remember and honor those who gave their lives in America’s wars.
Almost a century later, the term “the war to end war” can be seen as a glaring example of foolish, if understandable, optimism. And that also applies to “the great war.” For the truth is, World War I, as it is now more commonly called, neither ended the era of international conflict nor in any way could be described as “great.” In fact, in many ways it was a truly awful war with major military blunders on both sides.
Moreover, the resulting armistice paved the way for a peace treaty, signed in Versailles, France, in 1919, that was designed by the winning side in such a way it actually made a second world war almost inevitable. In fact, it even contributed, albeit indirectly, to the strife in the Middle East in the 21st century (a close examination of the Iraq war would show the connections) because the winners dictated terms so distasteful to the losers that long-term peace was almost impossible.
And, on Veterans Day 2012, where are we? The United States is the most heavily armed nation in the history of the world, theoretically prepared to wage war, if necessary, in any part of the globe. America also possesses by far the most atomic weapons of any country in the world, a point the Iranians don’t hesitate to mention when the United States and Israel (which is universally believed to have nuclear weaponry but has never admitted it) scold them for even thinking about developing such weapons of their own.
In the recent presidential election campaign, little mention was made of war or peace because domestic issues — the economy, especially — dominated our nation’s political discourse. But that doesn’t mean that President Obama and Congress won’t soon be confronted by serious questions about military matters, including, perhaps, pressure to reinstitute the draft so that the risks are more fairly (that is, democratically) distributed.
Look around: Syria’s civil war threatens to ensnare that nation’s neighbors; Iran remains volatile, to say the least; and in some respects the “Arab Spring” more and more resembles winter. And who dares predict the path the Middle East’s new leaders will take in their quest to retain their newfound authority?
Also, Washington dare not take its eyes off Africa where troubles — many of them involving bloody religious conflict — continue to put a large part of the continent at risk.
Thus “the war to end war” is now a distant memory, a conflict that has become more useful as a vehicle for novels and historians than as a road map to permanent peace.
Therefore Veterans Day will never become irrelevant. But today, as many Vermont towns did all weekend, let’s pay our sincere respects to those who have so bravely served our nation.MORE IN Letters
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