By Arthur H. Gunther III
On the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour in 1918, World War I mostly ended with the hope that such a dramatic finish would cement the promise: “The war to end all wars.” No such luck, and World War II, Korea, Vietnam and all the conflicts to the present in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere continue the folly of some — too many — leaders, the failure of diplomacy, the effects of special interest that profit from conflict but surely, too, the bravery of the grunt soldier, airman, Marine and seaman, all the military men and women of wartime/peacetime.
I say leaders’ “folly” because even in good intent, the mistakes — repeatedly — are many and often disastrous. Consider the Hurtgen Forest campaign of September-December, 1944, during World War II, which saw 33,000 U.S. killed or wounded — including my Uncle Winfield, who lost three fingers — and 28,000 for the Germans. Historians contend that the American battle plan never made strategic or tactical sense, though the sacrifice and bravery of the fallen can never be challenged. Had the generals thought it through and established an objective rather than fight as if replacements were unlimited, the battle might have been won. Actually, it did not need to happen in the first place.
And so it is in any war. Name any, and you will see mistakes, lack of good sense, why it might have been avoided, and in some rare cases, why it had to happen. What is most common, though, is that everyone who serves in a war theater and those who do so in rare, blessed peacetime, deserve all the applause, if you can applaud a war or the preparation for it.
Today is Veterans Day, which is the old Armistice Day in the United States, the day that commemorated the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the last war ever. Now, after the wars that have followed, it is Veterans Day, honoring the living and the dead. The focus is on the ordinary man or woman who shows up to do his or her duty, not so much the generals and almost never the politicians.
What happens in war can only be understood by those who have been there, absolutely no one else. Stephen Crane, the Civil War author, came close when he described the thin line between bravery and cowardice in “The Red Badge of Courage,” but the rest of us who have never been baptized cannot. Those who have gone to war return far different, changed forever. Perhaps more thankful. Perhaps more forgiving. Perhaps hateful. Perhaps possessed by unseen but constant demons.
My uncle lost fingers in the Hurtgenwald but went on to live a productive life as a husband, father, worker, son, citizen. Surely he had his emotional difficulties, but he was able to handle them. Other vets were — are — not so fortunate.
When we die, the hope is we pass over to the other side. The believers call it Heaven. If we could return having gone there, we would be changed forever. Well, our veterans, so many of them, have gone to hell, and they came back changed in certain ways. Know that, appreciate that, and until they use their free pass to Heaven, nod in respect, this and every day.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.