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.
— Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 – 1918)
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. For a generation, that designation marked the end of the War to end all wars. Sadly, it was more like the opening bell for a desperately violent century. The World War, as it was called until the sequel came out, was unique in the number of poets who abandoned their pens to fight for their countries. I don’t think any war, before or since, has been so indelibly recorded for posterity.
Just before the outbreak of the war, the Royal Military Academy had engraved on its walls a motto from the Roman poet Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” It means, “How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country.” Wilfred Owen, possibly the best known of the war poets, called this the old lie. Owen found nothing sweet or right in the death that haunted the trenches of that war. He described the horror in poetic detail that still has the power to shock today.
I think that Owen would agree with Gen. George Patton, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Owen returned to England after a year of war and was treated for shell shock, what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder. He knew what war was and had every reason to stay home. But he returned to the war. Crossing a canal, he was hit in the head by a German bullet. The date was Nov. 4, just a week before the armistice. He was only 25.
Every soldier is owed a debt that cannot ever be fully paid. We are incurring this debt to the current generation in Iraq and Afghanistan. We ask them to face horrors that are unimaginable to the rest of us. They do this, and incredibly many have gone back into that cauldron again and again and again. I doubt that any of them want to be there. They are there because they are soldiers and they do their duty.
For the veterans who return from the current war we are waging, we can begin to repay our debts in several ways. The first is once they join the military that they have the tools and training best suited to the job at hand. For too long Congress has treated the military as a welfare program for well connected contractors.
Early in the current conflicts, soldiers lacked adequate body armor and vehicles that could survive a roadside bomb. Meanwhile, millions of dollars went for weapons like the F-22 fighter which neither the administration nor the Pentagon wanted. Millions of dollars continue to go to government contractors in Iraq even after a dozen soldiers were electrocuted in shoddily built showers. We owe our troops better than this.
Second, when they return we must give them everything they need to successfully reintegrate into civilian life. The GI Bill is an admirable start, offering soldiers benefits including college education, health care and home loans, among other benefits. We must be vigilant that competent administrators, not cronies or campaign fundraisers, run these programs. We must not be afraid to fund these programs adequately and completely, so we don’t repeat the embarrassment of the Walter Reed Hospital scandal, where soldiers received top flight treatment, but were forced to live in mold infested quarters.
Third, we civilians should be respectful of those who served. We need to recognize that each soldier is a person and will be unique in their reactions to what they have seen and done. Some will be willing, even grateful to talk about their experiences. Others will want to close that chapter completely and move on with their lives. Our task is to figure out how they want to be treated and respect their personal space. In other words, we need to try to be good friends, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands to our special troops, not counselors or psychologists.
Finally, we need leadership that will truly appreciate the sacrifice they are asking of our troops. Our troops are men and women, not game pieces to be thrown away lightly. If I were emperor, I would make sure that the president and every member of Congress would have to read a bit of Wilfred Owens every morning before they went to work so they had to face, in some small way, the sacrifices they ask of others.
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.