In the United States, today is Veterans Day. The Brits still call it Armistice Day which was what America called the eleventh day of the eleventh month until 1954.
And, last Friday marked the tenth anniversary of a landmark on the road from what this day once was to what it has become and what it will become. Last Friday was the tenth anniversary of the beginning of a battle fought mostly by American Marines and British soldiers and Marines. The pogues called it Operation Phantom Fury. Everybody else called it the Second Battle of Fallujah. It was the largest and bloodiest battle of the Iraq War. It continued until the day before the day before Christmas. And it marked an important transition in America’s seemingly unending Middle Eastern Wars. Before Fallujah the United States and Britain were at war with the Iraqi Army. Fallujah marked the beginning of our long, apparently never ending, war against “insurgents.”
Fallujah also began an evolution in who the people of the United States are expected to call their enemies. It was just around Fallujah that militarized American police, many of them veterans, began to think of American dissenters – dissidents as diverse as tea partiers, occupiers, militia men and outlaw bikers – as insurgents.
The War To End War
Armistice Day marked the end of combat in the First World War which was the first general war in Europe in more than a century. War had become such a minor part of human affairs after Napoleon that the world’s nations regularly sent observers to conflicts like the American Civil War, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War to see what might happen.
What happened in that century in general was the Gatling Gun; the Maxim Gun; the invention of smokeless powder which both ended the “fog of war” and made the Maxim Gun aimable; rifles with interchangeable parts; self-obturating brass cartridges; the telephone, which made aerial artillery observation in hot air balloons possible; the electric light; the French 75 – or in French Le Canon de 75 modèle 1897; topographic maps; indirect artillery fire; mass produced munitions; new kinds of steel that made both submarines and battleships possible; radio; moving pictures; aeroplanes; the militarization of poison gas and very much more.
The results of all this peace and progress were both ironic and tragic. One observer at the battle of Hill 203 during the Russo-Japanese War was the distinguished British General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton. Hamilton was an enormously important officer. John Singer Sargent painted his portrait. And after watching 17,000 Japanese die taking Hill 203 from the Russians, Hamilton concluded that human wave attacks were the most effective way to defeat fortified machine gun positions. Of course the Russians only had about six machine guns. Ten years later, at a place called Gallipoli on the Turkish coast, Hamilton threw waves of soldiers at the Turkish machine gun positions there and he took about 188,000 casualties.
The horrors of modern warfare were discovered to be so terrible and the memory of a century of peace so recent that people thought of World War One as “The War To End All Wars.” Today, the Tower of London is surrounded by 888,246 ceramic poppies (background above), a blood red sea, with each poppy symbolizing one of the British soldiers who died in the great crusade to end war once and for all.
The survivors of that war often thought of themselves as heroes. It is an easy word to say. Politicians, who say things for a living, have always loved the way the word sounds on their tongues. Six years after the very last of all wars, at least up until then, ended, Congress promised all American veterans of the war a cash bonus. The great cost of wars always comes after the actual fighting ends. A way can usually be found to pay for the bullets but it is easier to say no to veterans. Many public figures can be convinced to weep over a single flag draped coffin. Somehow, thousands of coffins elicit fewer tears. Caring for broken down, haunted, old men can be a hard sell. In 1925 the Congress of the United States told the men who had ended war they were entitled to bonuses and that they could collect their bonuses in 1945 – if they lived that long.
Then the Great Depression struck. American veterans sought an advance on their bonuses. Fifteen thousand of them called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, went to Washington and camped in the parks in the summer of 1932. They wanted a thousand dollars a man. President Hoover finally had enough of their begging for what they thought they had been promised. At the end of July Hoover ordered future hero Douglass MacArthur to run the bums out of town using a mixed force of armor and horse cavalry. “I was horrified to see plain evidence of hunger in their faces,” a Washington socialite named Evalyn Walsh McLean wrote. Images of veterans being spanked with cavalry sabers were playing in movie theaters within a week. Four years later, in 1936, veterans got their bonuses. And, the memory of that debacle inspired the GI Bill which was intended to help veterans transition from military to civilian life.
In more modern wars, the needs of veterans often outlive their nation’s gratitude. That was certainly the case with Vietnam because virtually no one felt grateful to the men who fought that war. It may also eventually be the case for the men who have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan although maybe not. There now hardly seems to be a sporting event or elementary school graduation that doesn’t pay at least lip service to young veterans.
If there is an icon of the last dozen years of war it must be Los Angeles Times photographer Luis Sinco’s portrait of the “Marlboro Marine” (above) taken in Fallujah a decade ago. “His expression caught my eye,” Sinco later said. “To me, it said: terrified, exhausted, and glad just to be alive. I recognized that look because that’s how I felt too.” The New York Post ran the photo on the front page above a headline that read “Marlboro Men Kick Butt.”
Dan Rather of CBS lauded the photo on air even though he had no idea who the young Marine was. He was a kid named James Blake Miller. When he found out he was famous he became embarrassed. The President sent Miller Cigars and candy. Richard F. Natonski, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, told Miller he was too important to the American people to risk his life in combat and he offered Miller a trip home. Miller turned him down.
When Miller did get home he joined the Highwaymen Motorcycle Club. He also applied for disability.
He isn’t alone. Forty-three percent of all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a staggering 875,000 souls, receive disability payments connected to their military service. Forty-five percent of them suffer from tinnitus. Other common disabilities include back and neck problems, post traumatic stress disorder, migraines, arthritis and high blood pressure. In the last decade, 164,107 veterans have filed disability claims for sleep apnea. Last July, the Los Angeles Times remarked, “In the age of an all-volunteer military and after two unpopular wars, disability pay has come to be seen as a lifetime deferred payment for service.”
A hundred years after The War to End War lifetime disability has become one meaning of Veteran’s Day. Another, of course, is the annual sales. J.Crew for example, is discounting the price of its Merino Wool Asymmetrical Zip Sweater from $128 to $96. Macys is discounting the price of everything on its website by 20 percent in honor of America’s veterans. Sears is cutting prices by “up to 35 percent.” And Amazon invites the world to “celebrate” Veterans Day with special deals on “electronics, books, party supplies, movies, and more.”
Minds The Dead Have Ravished
A hundred years ago Wilfrid Owen, who almost survived The War To End War – he was killed a week before the Armistice, on November 4, 1918, fighting for a ditch called the Canal de la Sambre à l’Oise – wrote:
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Even though he did not live long enough to become one, Owen knew veterans look like. It is not a pretty picture. The truth of things is often not pretty.