Americans Celebrating the Armistice

Standing upon the stone sidewalks of a decaying French village is jarring because of its immortality–this village has looked more or less the same for decades.  The moss on roofs and walls is perhaps thicker, the chips in paint are perhaps more noticeable, but a World War soldier marching through this land with a heavy rucksack and soggy boots would still recognize this place.  And if that soldier marched by on November 11, he would have come across a couple dozen Frenchmen and two Americans standing in the rain, offering thanks.

It is easy to politicize the military and war.  Some believe War itself is just an extension of politics, as provocatively discussed in the 1995 film Crimson Tide.

Capt. Ramsey: At the Naval War College it was metallurgy and nuclear reactors, not 19th-century philosophy. “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” Von Clausewitz.
Hunter: I think, sir, that what he was actually trying to say was a little more–
Capt. Ramsey: Complicated? [Men laughing]
Hunter: Yes the purpose of war is to serve a political end but the true nature of war is to serve itself.
Capt. Ramsey: [Laughing] I’m very impressed. In other words, the sailor most likely to win the war is the one most willing to part company with the politicians and ignore everything except the destruction of the enemy. You’d agree with that.
Hunter: I’d agree that, um, that’s what Clausewitz was trying to say.
Capt. Ramsey: But you wouldn’t agree with it?
Hunter: No, sir, I do not. No, I just think that in the nuclear world the true enemy can’t be destroyed.
Capt. Ramsey: [Chuckling, tapping glass] Attention on deck. Von Clausewitz will now tell us exactly who the real enemy is. [Laughing]
Capt. Ramsey: Von? [Men laughing]
Hunter: In my humble opinion, in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.


I am not as versed in military history or theory, but I assume Hunter’s argument doesn’t have to be limited to life in a “nuclear world.”  War might be a necessity to fulfill political, moral and ideological aims, but ultimately someone must stop the bloodshed–someone must act from outside the war machine to press the “off button.”  Unless one side is totally destroyed…in which case civil war might keep the anger aloft.

It is proper to thank veterans.  My family and others often offer a “Thank you” to veterans among us, just because they put their lives on the line to protect our way of life.  It seems to me those people could use a pat on the back.  This applies to veterans of wars past as well, which brought my wife and I to stand in the rain as the names of dead French soldiers were called-out on Armistice Day.

The mayor reads off the names..

The mayor of Mauregny-en-Haye first gathered with townspeople at the city hall, and marched toward the war monument in front of a church.  All of the people shook hands and gave the appropriate “Bisous” kisses on the cheeks of residents and guests.  One woman is British, living in the town since marrying a Frenchman.  And then between the umbrellas, stood my wife and I representing the Americans.  Countrymen of the Allied forces each had an ear open as the mayor sang out the names of the dead, and “La Marseillaise” pumped forth from a boom-box.

It was all a bit surreal–me in France, standing with my wife in the rain, celebrating the dead.  A year ago I was reporting in Cologne on Karneval, and what I thought of people dressed as Smurfs drunk before 9a.  Two years ago I was a producer in Phoenix, preparing for a week in Germany to learn about renewable energy.  And this year, surrounded by 20 people in a village of a few hundred, I removed my hat to commemorate the end of the first great war.

That night my wife and I watched a film, “Joyeux Noel” detailing the true story of French, Scottish and Prussian soldiers calling a truce on Christmas Eve during the first world war.  They shared stories, songs, booze.  They celebrated mass.  They played soccer.  They shared trenches when artillery strikes were about to bomb one side or the other.

I am not a decision maker, just a journalist.  But when reasonable parties are at odds it seems like there should be a way to navigate conflict without coming to war.  I guess the caveat is defining “reasonable.”  Those “enemies” on Christmas seemed to embrace their humanity tighter than the ideals handed from political overseers–something the men paid for.

On Armistice Day, Remembrance Day or Veteran’s Day, it seems the least I could do is realize what hallowed ground is, and how fortunate I am to walk upon it.  And as I strode through puddles as the crowd dispersed to celebrate with a drink, I offered one more “Thanks” to those who could hear it, or not.

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