On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns fell silent for the first time in just over four years of fighting.
In the diary that he kept during his time in France, my grandfather, then a Captain in the U. S. Army infantry noted,
NOVEMBER 11, 1918. –ARMISTICE DAY–
November 11, 1918
A great day. The armistice was signed today. We were to resume our attack at 2 p.m. in case it was not signed. Slept in a German dugout last night.
Following a period of time where his unit was involved in post-war occupation duties, my grandfather would come home to his young bride and began a career in the army and a family.
My grandfather enlisted in the army in 1914 and rose in the ranks to Colonel, retiring in April, 1944. I have some notes that suggest he was being considered for promotion to Brigadier General and that he would have participated in the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
My grandfather was one of the fortunate ways. He came home from two wars to live in St. Louis with his wife and experience the birth of four grandsons. He would die at home in 1956 during a period of relative peace.
My father served as an officer in the United States Air Force for just over twenty years. For a number of reasons, I never discussed his participation in World War II or the following occupation of Japan. The only time he volunteered any information was to confirm the briefing he had received just prior to the proposed invasion of the Japanese mainland. He noted that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved the lives of over a million US and Allied soldiers.
My father would also die at home in a period of relatively peace.
But other families were and are not so lucky. Their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters are sent off to war, even if it is not called a war. Some die in faraway lands; others return home, some with visible wounds, many with invisible wounds. Forgive me if I sound cynical but it seems to me that we send people off to war and then forget them when we come home.
That is part of the story of the 1918 Armistice.
An armistice is an agreement to stop fighting so that negotiations for peace can begin. What transpired over the next six months did not ensure the peace but rather, in my opinion, insured that there would be a second war. And in fact, when one looks at the world today, the effects of those six months are still being felt today.
We live in a world where war seems to be the answer, even when we don’t know the question. It may be politically incorrect but I remember (and have often quoted) what Robert E. Lee wrote to his wife following the battle at Fredericksburg
“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” – 13 December 1862
I don’t think there is a general officer in the Armed Services today who does not consider the cost of human life when contemplating war. But there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a general officer today who understands that war is not the first response but, rather, the last response.
Countries like the United States created and perhaps continue to create weapons of war and then say to other countries that they are not allowed to have those weapons.
There was, I believe, a discussion amongst the scientific community to publish the details of the first atomic weapons but the United States wouldn’t do that (in fact, they would not share the details with Great Britain, forcing Great Britain to begin its own weapons program). The Soviet Union, through its established spy networks, was able to obtain the details for both the atomic and hydrogen bomb and have working models long before the United States government thought they would.
During the period that my father was on active duty, we, as a country and as a planet, lived under the threat of nuclear destruction. And the only thing that kept the threat from being actual was that both sides knew that no one wins in a nuclear exchange. How appropriate that this was the MAD doctrine(mutually assured destruction).
For the most part, the military and political leaders of the world during that time understood what an exchange of nuclear weapons would mean to life on this planet. And while they did not shy away from war, they sought other forms.
I don’t think that is the case today. The actions taken at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created divisions that are still being felt today. The cause for war was not diminished by that conference; in fact, it was magnified.
We do not see the buildup in military weapons that preceded World War I or World War II but over 50% of budgets of the major political powers on this planet are directed towards destruction. And that can only mean that if you spend more on destruction than construction, no one wins!
What will it take for countries to turn their weapons into plowshares, to the money that goes to weapons right now and invest it in education and research?
On this day 101 years ago a story began. The theme was that there would be no more war; that the war that had been fought was the “war to end all wars.” But everything that was done in the days that followed ensured that there would be another war.
Right now, the ending of this story must be “to be continued” while the closing chapters are written.
Because we keep making weapons of war better, the next war will be the war to end all wars because we will have destroyed this planet and that will be the final chapter.
But we can take the occasion of this day to change the ending of the story. To move away from destruction to construction, to building new lives, to bring a lasting peace to this world. It will not be a single chapter but several chapters.
The 1918 Armistice was meant to be the end of war but it became the beginning. Now is the time for us to write the conclusion as it was meant to be.