Monday, November 11, 2013

armistice day

On this day, 95 years ago, the combatants in the Great War concluded an armistice, ending the bloodiest and most widespread conflict known to historians. There was a peace treaty, signed at Versailles in 1919, but the United States failed to ratify it and its provisions -- predictably -- sowed the seeds of another global war two decades later.

America still celebrated the holiday. I remember marching in parades despite the chilly November weather. My grandfather had been drafted, but never sent to Europe before the armistice,so he had no war stories to tell.  With fewer and fewer doughboys surviving, Congress renamed the holiday Veterans Day. Lawmakers even acquiesced to pressure from veterans groups and returned the title to November 11 after several years as another one of those Monday holidays that supposedly saved energy and certainly gave everybody a three-day weekend. [Decoration Day, the May 30 holiday started so that the graves of Union veterans would be given flowers, was renamed Memorial Day and forever placed as the last Monday in May.]

As I recounted a few months ago, I have been reading many of the new books on World War I and have been revising my own thinking and judgments about it. Just finished Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace, a fine book and worthy successor to Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower. MacMillan spreads the blame around for starting the war, more widely than I now would.

From various authors, there are still important lessons for us today: irrational feelings about national reputation can lead to foolish actions; the fact that major wars are economic disasters isn't strong enough to prevent foolhardy politicians from starting them; expectations of quick victories are almost always wrong, and no war should be started with that as a key assumption. I also believe that Clemenceau was right: war is too important to be left to generals -- and certainly too important for civilians to acquiesce in rigid war plans that can't be turned off or ratcheted down for the sake of diplomacy.

As we commemorate the centennial of this tragic conflict, I hope we keep those lessons front and center.

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