Just over one hundred years ago—on November 11th, 1918—Germany signed the Armistice that brought World War I to an end. Propagandists’ high-flown rhetoric notwithstanding (“the war to end all wars,” “making the world safe for democracy”) it was clear to pretty much everyone that, despite the unprecedented destruction and loss of life, the war had accomplished noting.
The following spring, in a poem called “Aftermath,” English war veteran Siegfried Sassoon asked:
HAVE you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-gray
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget!
I’m pleased to report that the British, at least, haven’t forgotten. When I was in England last month, everywhere I went I saw people with red poppies pinned to their coats and jackets in anticipation of the upcoming centenary of the Armistice, and, on the day itself, huge crowds of people—many of them wearing poppies—gathered at Remembrance Day events throughout the UK, and throughout the Commonwealth.
Equally well-attended events took place across Europe (President Trump attended one in Paris) and as far afield as St. Petersburg and Hong Kong. But nothing comparable took place in the United States. That’s understandable, of course. As an occasion for remembering and honoring our fallen soldiers, Armistice Day (or Veterans Day, as it’s now called) never could compete with Memorial Day. Created to honor those who died in the Civil War, by 1918 Memorial Day was already well-established as our national day of remembrance, and it has remained our national day of remembrance ever since.
It would be a shame, however, for America’s answer to Sassoon’s question to be, “yes.” More than 2 million American soldiers sailed to Europe to fight in World War I, and more than 100,000 of them died there, which is reason enough to remember the war. It’s not, however, a reason to single it out for special attention. The death toll was far higher in World War II, and higher still in the Civil War. Nevertheless, World War I is special. It’s special because of the way it changed the course of world history, and it’s special because there are many parallels between the situation in Europe after the Armistice and the situation we find ourselves in now, 100 years later.
By the end of 1918, the war itself and the way it was administered had discredited the global ruling class in the eyes of the people. Radical groups, on the left and the right, were quick to exploit the public’s disillusionment and fear by blaming, not just the specific individuals responsible for the war, but the entire ruling class and the institutions of liberal democracy that, it was claimed, formed the basis for the ruling class’s power. It was time, said the radicals, to destroy those liberal institutions and replace them with something new and better—with communism or fascism or national socialism.
The radicals used lies and propaganda to polarize the public and drive its members into one faction or another. Knowing that nothing would increase the public’s sense of disillusionment and fear more than the specter of blood in the streets, they organized demonstrations that were intentionally designed to provoke violent reactions from their ideological opponents and the police. And in country after country, these tactics worked. The Communists took control of Russia in 1922; the Fascists took control of Italy in 1925; the National Socialists took control of Germany in 1933; and similar radical movements took control of other countries around the world in the years that followed.
Once in power, the radicals subjected the world to an orgy of death and destruction on a scale that would previously have been unimaginable. They persecuted and murdered their own people, they invaded and subjugated their neighbors, and they initiated a second world war that killed tens of millions and left much of Europe and Asia in ruins.
It was a terrible ordeal, but it did bring at least some of the world’s people to their senses. While the persecution and murder continued behind the iron curtain, most people in the developed world recognized that, far from being the cause of the troubles that beset the world in 1918, the liberal institutions that had prevailed during the 19th century were the reason the world had enjoyed an unprecedented degree of peace and prosperity throughout that time. Radical ideologies like fascism and communism were seen for what they are: tyrannical systems under which peace and prosperity—and freedom and equality—are all impossible.
And yet, here we are, in 2018. Once again, a series of policy blunders have discredited the global ruling class in the eyes of the people, and, once again, radical groups, on the left and the right, are exploiting the public’s disillusionment and fear by urging it to blame, not just the specific individuals responsible for our recent wars and economic set-backs, but the entire ruling class and the institutions of liberal democracy that, it is claimed, form the basis for the ruling class’s power. On the right, some radicals are trying to rehabilitate some of the fascists’ ideas, and on the left many radicals are unabashedly extolling the merits of socialism. Once again, the radicals are using lies and propaganda to polarize the public and drive its members into one faction or another, and, once again, the radicals are spilling blood in the streets to increase the public’s sense of disillusionment and fear.
How can we persuade Americans, especially young Americans, to step back from this brink? How can we get them to appreciate the danger? One way, it seems to me, is to teach them about World War I and its aftermath. We missed a golden opportunity to do that last Sunday on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, but there’ll be other opportunities, I’m sure.
One possibility that occurs to me is to encourage Americans to wear poppies on Veterans Day. It was, in fact, an American who started custom in the first place. Moina Michael wore a silk poppy to a conference of YMCA Overseas War Secretaries in New York in November 1918 and distributed dozens of similar poppies amongst the delegates. In the years that followed, she dedicated herself to making the poppy an international symbol of remembrance, and she succeeded. The American Legion formally adopted the poppy in 1920. The Royal British Legion followed suit soon afterward, as did veterans groups throughout the English-speaking world.
Why poppies? The inspiration came from another poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by a Canadian soldier named John McCrae to honor his friends and comrades buried in make-shift graves during the Battle of Ypres:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.