Tuesday, November 11
"If in some smothering dreams you too could pace . . . "
It's one of those childhood memories which I don't know when it happened and I'm not 100-percent positive where it happened, but I think I was about eight or nine years old, not that long after we'd moved to Tennessee, and we were making one of our fairly regular weekend trips to Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee and the site of quite a lot of extremely well-preserved history. I think we were walking by some kind of memorial in front of the county courthouse that listed the names of people from Washington County who had died in various wars, and my dad pointed out that the soldiers who had died in World War I were listed under "The Great War." He asked me why I thought it said that instead of World War I, and when I told him I had no idea, he said, "Because they didn't think there could ever be another one. That's why they called it 'the war to end all wars' -- they thought that after that war, there could never be another one that would be that bad."
That memory, as hazy as it is, was the first thing that popped into my head while I was reading this post by Robert Farley and this post by Matthew Yglesias (both linked here) about how November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day but has come to mean something quite different under the "Veterans Day" moniker. According to Wikipedia, the name was changed in the mid-1950s to expand the holiday's remembrance to veterans of all wars, and while I obviously think that honoring our veterans is a right and necessary thing to do, I wonder if something else important wasn't lost in the change -- something that we might do well to reflect on now more than ever.
People in the late teens in 1920s referred to WWI as "the war to end all wars" not only because they thought there could never be another one that big, but also because they thought "The Great War" had been so definitive and cathartic that it reordered the world in such a way that we'd never need to have another war that big again. Well, obviously that wasn't how things played out, and as Yglesias alludes to, the second world war and the Cold War, among many other assorted conflicts and miseries, were more or less a direct result of that supposed new world order that was created in the wake of World War One.
That's about as much evidence as anyone could need that "war for peace" just doesn't work, and yet that's precisely the "argument" (if one can call it that) some people were making in the run-up to the second Iraq war, not to mention the argument that some still make in favor of military action against Iran. This idea that war can be a crucible out of which wonderful new democracies and alliances can be formed, it just doesn't hold any water, and yet some people still cling to the idea that America can reshape the world in our image and make it conform to our ideals if we're just willing to put enough military might behind it.
Look, I'm not saying that no war should ever be fought, or that walking around putting daisies in the barrels of soldiers' M-16s is the way to solve all the world's ills. Some wars need to be fought; the United States has both a need and a right to defend itself. But it's one thing to get involved in a war for the sake of protecting a nation's sovereignty or security; it's another thing entirely to start a war thinking it can change the world for the better. I can't think of a single instance in which that has ever worked. It all goes back to an excellent quote from Sadly, No! four years ago, and that I've invoked several times since then: War never doesn't hurt. You might or might not gain something from fighting in a war, but you are guaranteed to lose something -- and I continue to be confounded by the number of people who still seem so willing to take those odds.
War, by its very definition, doesn't preserve peace; the historical evidence shows us that neither does it leave peace in its wake, at least not a very enduring one. And while there's no sure-fire, airtight method for achieving peace, not starting wars is pretty much the most effective one anyone's ever been able to come up with. If you'll permit me to indulge my '80s-movie geekdom and involve a famous-to-the-point-of-cliché line from "WarGames," "The only winning move is not to play."
And I think that's worth keeping in mind today. While we're honoring the men and women who've had to make huge sacrifices for our country, let's not forget the circumstances and mistakes -- by other countries' governments as well as our own -- that forced them to make those sacrifices to begin with. And let's commit ourselves to not making those same mistakes again.