My Facebook feed filled up this weekend with salutes to veterans. My friends were mostly Americans, and so most of these (indeed, I’d bet all of them) were tributes to U.S. soldiers. For Americans, of course, Sunday was Veterans Day, but for the British and others it was Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day–Armistice Day, as I think of it–is a more fitting holiday than Veterans Day. It asks us to remember something particularly awful and shattering, the war that the United States has largely forgotten: the war that an American president promised would end all wars.
Every year at this time, I remember the victims of the First World War–the British and the Americans, the French and the Germans, the Australians and the Serbs, the Russians and the Austrians–but I also remember the way that men’s lives were often squandered by thoughtless, pedantic, and careless generals. Too often, as Siegfried Sassoon predicted, their sacrifice has been turned into an argument for offering new generations of young men (and now women) the opportunity to be remembered in wreath-laying ceremonies. There is something about the spectacle of civilians (particularly in the United States) ritually intoning “Thank you for your service” that seems to miss the more profound solemnity of Remembrance Day. (That said, it seems the poppies have gotten out of hand.)