Memorial Day 2021

W.J. Astore

In my village, there’s a memorial to the men who served in “the war with Germany,” 1917-18, which we now call World War I. Here’s a photo of it that I took a few days ago:

It includes the names of some of the oldest and most prominent families of my community, which is not surprising. World War I did witness a draft in America, but there was also a sense of noblesse oblige among the more affluent, a sense that one was required to serve if one was healthy.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Woodrow Wilson, reelected as president in 1916, actually had acted to keep America out of the war, as he promised he would. The “Yanks and the tanks” helped to tip the scales against Imperial Germany on the Western Front in the spring of 1918. Without the presence of U.S. doughboys (troops), and more importantly the promise of more to come, it’s possible the French and British may have been defeated by the great German offensive, or at the very least may have decided to sue for peace. But of course the German offensive ran its course and stalled, and the Allied counteroffensive (supported by a million or so fresh Yanks) wore down the Germans until they sued for peace, with the war finally ending on November 11, 1918.

It’s tempting to think that a German victory or quasi-victory in 1918 or 1919 would have prevented the rise of someone like Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself was devastated by Germany’s loss in 1918, as so many Germans were, and that loss combined with the seductive lie that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by traitorous elements on the homefront created the climate in which a rabble-rouser like Hitler could rise and thrive. And surely the Second Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm and officers like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff was preferable to the Third Reich under Hitler and his henchmen?

I’m not so sure. Germany’s Second Reich achieved something in 1917 the Third Reich couldn’t in 1941: the defeat of Russia. (The injection of Lenin into Russia as a poison pill of sorts contributed to the Russian Revolution and the death of the Tsar.) But that same Second Reich imposed the harshest of peaces on a destabilized Russia. Known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans took huge swaths of territory from Russia, most of its industrial resources, and much of its agricultural base as well. Basically, men like Ludendorff saw the Slavic peoples as inferior and pictured them as Germany’s slaves. Russia’s western lands were to become living space for the superior Germanic peoples. In short, Lebensraum (living space) wasn’t just Hitler’s idea: it was an ambition shared by many German militarists. Let’s recall as well the name of the general who marched beside Hitler in the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. That general: Ludendorff.

Area Lost by Russia in Treaty. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918)

A German victory in 1918 or 1919 would have produced a hell of sorts for the Slavic peoples to the east. Perhaps not a Hitlerian Holocaust (virulent and murderous anti-Semitism was peculiar to Hitler and the Third Reich), but nevertheless an empire characterized by an expansionist militarism that saw dispossession and slavery as perfectly legitimate options for the future. In sum, the Germans of early 1918 were ruthless in victory, so when Germany ultimately lost later that year, the Allies reciprocated with ruthlessness of their own in 1919.

German militarism had to be stopped, or so the men with names on the monument in my village appear to have decided. The shame of it all is how World War I led, not to eternal peace as Wilson promised, but to World War II and to so many wars and conflicts after that.

Memorial Day reminds us of the price troops pay for seemingly endless wars, and that even when wars appear to be for good, even noble, causes, how often those causes are betrayed whether during or after those wars.

36 thoughts on “Memorial Day 2021

      1. The German Kaiser reich had its own genocide when it murdered the Herero tribes in South West Africa in 1904 – 1908. Incidentally the gobernor of German SW Africa was Heinrich Göring, father of Luftwaffe leader Hermann Göring. So the track record of the German Reich wasn’t flawles to begin with.

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        1. Yes. A good book here is “Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany,” by Isabel V. Hull

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  1. Agree—“road not taken” speculations are worth gaming out, if only to gain perspectives for future actions. My favorite history prof was fond of posing such questions on exams. I thought it was a supremely effective way of gauging students’ total knowledge of the period under study. The one question I still remember more than four decades later was, “What if Marie Antoinette had been ugly?” : )

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  2. A very thoughtful and informed analysis of WWI. WWI was the most important war of the 20th century ( in my opinion ). It was the end of feudalism which refused to die in Russia, Turkey, Austria, and Germany. I often wonder if WWII would have not occurred if Germany had won, or at least the peace treaty of 1918 had been less severe on Germany.

    The next world war may be a copy of WWI. Instead of Serbia, substitute Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. Instead of the triple alliance of France, Russia and Great Britain, substitute NATO.

    As Robert Graves said in his book on WWI, ‘no one really knew what the war was about anymore’. A senseless war that no one wanted yet almost everyone supported. The magnitude of the slaughter no one could have imagined. This was the war to end all wars, yet in one generation a more terrible was ensued.

    For the time being, Europe seems to be exhausted from the wars of the 20th century, yet this also is like WWI. Europe had been at peace since the end of the Napoleonic wars ( except for some minor wars ) for about a hundred years before WWI. When the Great War broke out, the young men eagerly enlisted. Seems that attitude is with us now.

    One final thing I have noticed about the world wars, and there have been four so far ( The 7 years War, Napoleonic, WWI, WWII ), is that the total dead has doubled or tripled each time. 1 million in the 7 years war, 3 million in the Napoleonic wars, 25 million in WWI, 75 million in WWII. World War V will be a nuclear war. The dead, mostly civilians will be 1 -3 billion.

    I hope this Memorial Day is truly one of remembrance of how senseless and brutal all wars are, and a determination not to engage in violence as a form of conflict resolution.

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    1. apologies for demonstrating such flaming pyrrhonism, but wars will only cease and desist when the human species ceases to exist. as an octogenarian who has spent a lifetime studying invertebrate species occupying marine, riverine, and lacustrine habitats, amplified by their respective communities of ramifying ecological structures of commensalism, mutualism, and endosymbiosis, i have concluded that the human species, tho’ singularly clever, is a deeply flawed species. the sooner it destroys itself w/ its insatiable weapons and war-mongering obsessions the better. our hubris, esurience, arrogance, and tribalistic approach to resolving self-serving political tropes is truly stunpolling. clearly, i’m a listless, supine, discouraged, categoric cop-out who has wasted too much energy on spurious discourse, lobbying, fighting ‘the good fight’, and feckless hand-wringing. yet it has all translated into a ‘sound and fury” screamed into the silence of an empty audience. despite us, mother nature will inexorably move on in her resplendent evolutionary trajectories, of which our species is but a nugatory blip… or perhaps glitch. the ‘what-ifs’ are an exercise in imaginative and thought-provoking futility.

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      1. The problem, Jeanie, is that if and when we humans destroy ourselves, we’ll likely take most of the planet’s biosphere with us. We’re greedy in death as well as in life.

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        1. hope reigns supreme here, wja; our planet will have an estimated 5~7 billion more years to adjust to our and other species’ departure. during that time, she will evolve a selcouth lineage of micro-/macro-organisms, and perhaps unimaginable life forms betwixt and between. planet earth’s ecosystems will prevail, but titivated in a different, aposematic raiment of hues and morphologies… until she too must sing her swan-song and bid her consociate solar-system’s siblings adieu. t’is of course, the long-term view.

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      2. I feel your discouragement and agree with you completely. I still have a morsel of hope for the human race, but its chance for survival is one in a million.
        I believe ( no hard evidence ) that something happened in the neuro-physiology of the human brain about 200,000 years ago. This event, chemical or anatomical has caused a schizophrenic condition in the human mind. Humans are no longer capable of being comfortable in their own skins unlike the rest of the animal kingdom.
        I don’t want to elaborate further because it would take a lot of space for the complete explanation.
        I still ‘soldier on’ because I find it better to fight the good fight and lose than not fight at all.

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        1. you deserve naught but plaudits, dr. scott… and you too denise and wja… for carrying on that ennobling battle for a more liveable world, a kinder, gentler, more equitable world on behalf of those who are enervated and have become discouraged… as well as on behalf of those who don’t care, nor ever have in the first place. your perfervid sustentations are admirable.

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  3. Excellent historical perspective WJA! It reminded us that (unfortunately) there is such a thing as a “just” war.

    And the “stab in the back” conspiracy theory; how this piece of fiction could have so much weight at the time! Let’s hope the current fiction of “stop de steal” does not gain such credibility.

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  4. WJA – a ‘what-if’ historical exercise I saw recently was the conjecture that IF Woodrow Wilson had NOT caught the ‘Spanish’ flu on his way to the Treaty of Versailles, and been very ill during the negotiations, he would have been a far-stronger force in pushing for more neutral treaty terms (ie; less punitive to the Germans) than actually resulted. He had reportedly been advocating just that position before he left for Europe, so it sounds plausible.
    While it’s not clear what effect (if any) that more neutral treaty-terms would have had regarding the rise of Hitler & the Nazis, obviously the thought is that this might have prevented the German’s extreme resentment against that treaty and its resultant reparations and territorial loss. This would’ve taken away a major point that Hitler & the Nazis were able to successfully exploit, and theoretically perhaps been just-enough to prevent WWII in Europe…

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    1. I was very interested to read your post, Eddie. I hadn’t known that about Wilson. To think that a major historical event may have hinged on a President’s physical condition….”for want of a nail, the shoe was lost…”

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    2. My sense here is that Wilson matters little. The French and British wanted revenge and were not to be cowed by Wilson, sick or well.

      Wilson was out of his league at Versailles.

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      1. Yes, WJA, I fall on your side of the argument in that ‘what-if’ scenario, for the most part believing that the Zeitgeist will prevail ~98% of the time, as opposed to the ‘individual’. I know literature, media, theater, and politicians like to pander-to, embellish and often exploit our innate human individualism, with its belief that the individual can have a significant POSITIVE effect on world events. But from all I’ve observed and learned in my lifetime, it certainly appears to be the opposite, with history moving in broad strokes, movements that are rarely controlled or even significantly influenced by one individual developing their own momentum, too often based on the not-so-subtle influences of our ‘reptilian brain’ core.

        Unfortunately, I do believe that certain individual leaders of nations can relatively easily have a profound NEGATIVE effect on the world, the easiest possibility to envision would be if a US, Russian, or Chinese leader were to ‘press the button’ in a moment of insanity, initiating a major nuclear exchange which would kill 100’s of millions if-not billions of people and possibly have climate effects we can only guess-at.

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        1. your lucidity and luculence are wholly appreciated, eddie s., despite the doomsday gloominess of your adumbrations.

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      2. My take on this was that the French & British welcomed American arms, money & men, but viewed the 1914-1918 war as a European affair. The US were junior partners at most, a red-headed stepchild at worst, with no experience in international affairs, and therefore no real voice at the table.

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        1. Yes. And what we had to offer was mainly warm bodies and cold cash. The U.S. didn’t become the “arsenal of democracy” until World War II.

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          1. “arsenal of democracy”… wonderful, wja… what a counter-intuitive oxymoron: the great USA[rsenals] to the rescue.

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  5. I think WW2 was necessary to completely alter the German outlook or, to use their word, weltanschauung. A win in WW1 would not have done that as success only invites further adventures as has happened with the US after WW2.

    The horror and scope of WW2 was cathartic for Germany and ended for all time any desire for expansion by way of war. Hitler raised hopes of a better future (for Germany only) to a fever pitch only to throw the country into the abyss because, though a genius in some ways, he was a madman. I don’t believe it is only Jews, but Germans as a whole that say “never again.”

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  6. WWI has many lessons for the present and America’s changing role in the world – as well as the risks of crises to escalate beyond anyone’s control.

    I’m reading G. J. Meyer’s excellent history of WWI, “A World Undone”. He provides a good deal of background on the changing fortunes of the European empires in the late 19th/early 20th centuries; he describes how resulting perceptions of national interest and misunderstanding of other countries interests created the conditions for war.

    As a result, between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914 to the declarations of war on August 1st, most of the European leaders were desperate to stop the march to war but none could once their country began mobilization and the military was seen as the only solution. That last point is one we should reflect on a good deal for today’s world.

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  7. Regarding “The Great War” of 1914-1918 and memories of those caught up in it:

    Desultory Aftermath
    (in the style of John Allan Wyeth’s This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets)

    He studied foreign languages in school:
    Italian, Greek and Latin, German, French.
    or so his records indicated when
    The Great War called and Woodrow Wilson sent
    John Allan Wyeth, young and willing tool,
    to ravaged Europe nauseous with the stench
    of grim and gruesome, pointless carnage. Then,
    in later years, he cast in verse thoughts meant
    to recollect his service time: a spool
    of memory, unwound through mud and trench
    and ad-hoc duties towards a rendezvous
    with anti-climax where two stricken men
    chance to converse, both of them tired and spent:
    one wounded, and the other sick with flu.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2020

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    1. Then Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did their tag-team Woodrow Wilson thing on me and some other working class kids of the immediate Post WWII generation:

      Dragooned and Bullied Ex-Patriot
      (From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley)

      In early manhood’s time they came for us
      Distressed that we might plot a course our own
      And not one pledged to serve their animus

      We had begun to reap what they had sown;
      From seeds of dragons’ teeth sprang fighting men
      On fields of battle far from homeland grown.

      Yet grim news filtered back both now and then
      Of great success that almost had expired
      From using up its youth time and again

      A great success, indeed, that then required
      A fresh transfusion of the red supply
      Of winning fights, old Pyrrhus never tired

      Yet few could smell the stinking, reeking lie:
      Our youth was spent for what the old would buy

      And so to mask just what they had in store
      For us who had no choice and lived in dread,
      They tried to feed us patriotic lore

      Designed to earn our trust but not our bread
      But when that didn’t work as warfare bait
      They switched to using threat of jail instead

      They worked on us from early dawn till late:
      The Press, the Church, the School, the Law combined
      To wipe us blank of thought as any slate

      The Great Success abroad seemed to have dined
      On all the easy lives it could obtain;
      And yet it hungered still for our young kind

      Our leaders, though, felt not the slightest pain
      To them we meant no loss but only gain

      Some Fear Itself had seeped into our land:
      Reactionary Panic, Mystic Dread,
      And Abstract Anger gained the upper hand.

      Then fearing “communists” beneath each bed
      The Best and Brightest shipped us overseas
      To shoot a bad idea in the head

      Despite some vaguely heard pathetic pleas
      From those whose brains had better things to think
      The ones in charge cared only for their ease

      They hesitated not, nor did they shrink,
      As they from off our backs our freedoms flayed
      They sent us to a swamp to swim or sink

      Our youth again found its young self betrayed
      To die from history our elders made

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

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  8. For the American and Vietnamese conscripts (living and deceased) who populate my thoughts and memories:

    America the Dutiful

    In the Land of the Fleeced and the Home of the Slave
    Where the cowed and the buffaloed moan
    Where seldom we find an inquisitive mind
    And the people pay up with a groan

    While at home on the range when the firing begins
    Not a word of encouragement sounds
    The temp workers leave for their other day jobs
    And the cops and the guards make their rounds

    When the rich ones start wars that the poor have to fight
    And the chickenhawks glare as they cluck
    The recruiters hold raffles and promise the moon
    In the neighborhoods down on their luck

    Where the clouds hang around for the length of the day
    Casting shadows and fear all around
    A lost mother grieves and starts haunting the land
    Having just laid her son in the ground

    As the war against someone somewhere at some time
    Never quite seems to end or conclude
    War itself becomes reason for having this war
    Leaving no room for thought to intrude

    Unreported out west by vacationing scribes
    Seeking rest from Access Mentalpause
    The tombstones in Aspen turn up all at once
    Having roots that connect with their cause

    Now the Fig Leaf Contingent has answered the call
    From a time long ago it’s returned
    Once again to buy time for the guilty to mime
    More excuses for lives that they’ve burned

    So the dead really died so that more dead can die
    Goes the “logic” that once more holds sway
    Understanding, the Fig Leaf Contingent steps up,
    Packs its gear and then marches away

    Late at night out on runway strips hidden and dark
    Where the citizens can’t see what shocks
    The Contingent comes “home” one-by-one, all alone,
    In a wheelchair or flag-covered box

    So the long-promised “victory” ever recedes
    As the Fig Leaf Contingent fights on
    Keeping faith with the faithless who’ve ordered its doom
    Like a poorly schooled chess player’s pawn

    In the dutiful land of the fruitcakes and nuts
    Where the sun shines between the two seas
    The hills in their lavender majesty stand
    Unaffected by men’s howling pleas

    For to go with no reason where no purpose calls
    Leads to nothing but more of the same
    Till the Fig Leaf Contingent’s utility fails
    To deflect any more of the blame

    And since something was lost surely someone has failed
    Only whom could those proud persons be?
    Not the chickenhawks glaring and clucking for war!
    Not the neo-new, know-nothing “we”!

    As the first mate harpooner admonished his crew
    In the mad Captain Ahab’s vast tale
    He would not have along for a ride in his boat
    Any man not afraid of a whale

    For the ocean is great and my ship is so small
    And the winds blow beyond all command
    Only fools and the drowned ever this truth forget
    Which is why they should stay on dry land

    But the day-trippers out for a float on the pond
    Seldom think of the perilous shoals
    So they send off the Fig Leaf Contingent to fight
    Absent only some well-defined goals

    Thus they played on TV what in real life demands
    More than Hobbits, and Wizards, and Elves
    And they taught us our duty much better by far
    Than they put into practice themselves

    So we’ve come back again from our exile abroad
    With our tattered ranks bitter and sore
    Having done what our Maximum Leader would not
    All of that and a hundred times more

    We are here `cause we’re here `cause we’re here `cause we’re here
    And for no other reason on earth
    But for us in the Fig Leaf Contingent, we know
    What our duty and honor are worth

    So we will not abandon to memory’s hole
    Those we loved and who loved us in turn
    Still we go to our graveyards secure in our trust
    That America never will learn

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2005

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