Service: “To End All Wars” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
There’s an old joke – one of those stereotypes with a grain of truth – which holds that Europe is where they think a hundred miles is a long way, and America is where they think a hundred years is a long time. So here we are, a hundred years on from that eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the military conflagration known as the first world war came to an end – sort of. It is ironic, though not irrelevant, that the exact hour is part of the legend of this event, because that specificity was the occasion for a last wave of pointless carnage, as related in Adam Hochschild’s account published in the New Yorker this month.
Most of us have some sense of the complex web of diplomatic alliances and governmental belligerence that created the war in response to an act of politically motivated terrorism. The famous assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by a Serbian nationalist brought the allied nations of Germany, Italy, Austro-Hungary, and Ottoman Turkey, to side with each other against France, Britain, and Russia. This conflict represented both the crumbling of two hundred years of competitive European colonialism, and “the kind of envy, insincerity, festering rancor and muddle that only families can manage,” according to historian Miranda Carter. King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were all grandchildren of the British Queen Victoria, who until her death in 1901, had maintained a kind of continental order by force of matriarchal will. In her absence, strained personal and political relationships deteriorated, until ambitious strategists in each alliance calculated that there might be more to gain than to lose by an all-out military conflict.
Four years later, that war had taken a staggering toll, recounts Hochschild: “more than nine million men killed in combat, and another twenty-one million wounded, many of them left without arms, legs, noses, genitals. Millions of civilians also died. And the long-range consequences were worse still: in Germany, the conflict left a simmering bitterness that Hitler brilliantly manipulated. It is impossible to imagine the Second World War happening without the toxic legacy of the First.”
I was always taught that this simmering bitterness was the result of provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, signed many months after the Armistice, in June of 1919. But the more I understand about what occurred in November, the more I realize that the toxic legacy was already in place before Versailles ever happened, and the more I see the same toxic forces at work in the world today.
This was the first war in which both sides invested huge resources in whipping up patriotic fervor on the home front, with posters, films, pamphlets, postcards, plays, children’s books, and more. The German military controlled press censorship, and as the tide of war turned against them in the second half of 1918, the country’s propaganda for popular consumption fully parted ways with reality, remaining relentlessly triumphal to the last. German civilians had no idea their vaunted military force was starting to crumble. Even a few weeks before the Armistice, the country’s newspapers were still running stories about an imminent final victory. This illusion was aided by the fact that almost all the combat had been, to the very end, on foreign soil. A vast German offensive in the spring of 1918 had been dazzlingly successful; troops broke the long deadlock of trench warfare and advanced far into France. The progress eventually stalled before it reached Paris, but on August 1st, the ever-optimistic Kaiser had reassured his people that the “worst is behind us.” Moreover, German troops returning after the armistice marched home in good order, with their regimental flags flying proudly, and were welcomed by crowds throwing flowers, and a national Chancellor who greeted them in Berlin as having returned “unconquered from the field of battle.”
The one effect of the war that German civilians had fully experienced was hunger. A British blockade that began in 1914 and continued throughout the war created persistent and severe food shortages, so that by the wars end, average calorie consumption was less than half what it had been in peace time. The German delegates to the Armistice conference in the forest of Compiègne had protested frantically that their country was starving; rather than lift the blockade, however, the Allies agreed to “contemplate the provisioning” of Germany. Herbert Hoover, the American aid-relief czar at the time, declared that “The United States is not at war with German infants,” and overcoming resistance from the British and the French, while deftly cutting bureaucratic corners, he steered some 1.3 million tons of food to Germany. But these first shipments did not begin until mid-March, 1919, four long months after the Armistice. Only then were Germans allowed to resume fishing in the North Sea, and the blockade itself was not lifted until Germany reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles, at the end of June. Almost half a million German civilians had died of starvation and malnutrition by then.
Other strategic decisions served to increase the wars carnage, even as its end became inevitable. Although German delegates had requested a cease-fire while the terms of the Armistice were under discussion, since communication with their high command was time-consuming, the Allied Commander in Chief, the French Marshall Foch, refused, and in fact ordered all his commanders to step up attacks: “It is urgent to hasten and intensify our efforts,” he instructed. Even after the terms were approved, and the Armistice signed, at 5:00 am on November 11, and the information radioed and telephoned up and down the front lines to commanders on both sides, Allied attacks that had been scheduled for that morning continued to be carried out until the last possible moment just before the eleventh hour, costing almost 3,000 additional lives, and over 8,000 more wounded or missing. Various motivations held the troops and their generals in battle. Some felt their participation in the war as a glorious endeavor, and did not wish to go back to lesser things. Some still sought revenge for personal or national losses that had occurred earlier in the conflict. Hochschild reports that many artillerymen on both sides were eager to shoot off all their ammunition in order to avoid having to load and transport the heavy shells off the battlefield.
American soldiers were among those sent on fruitless, high mortality missions in the last moments of the war. The U.S. military was rigidly segregated at that time, and the men of the American 92nd Division were black. All their higher-ranking officers, however, were white, often Southerners resentful of being given such commands. Having already endured discrimination and fear at home—sixty black Americans were lynched in 1918 alone—and being treated as second-class citizens in the Army, these troops found themselves, after the Armistice had been signed, advancing into German machine-gun fire and mustard gas. They were ordered to make their last attack at 10:30 a.m. The 92nd Division officially recorded seventeen deaths and three hundred and two wounded or missing on November 11th; one general declared that the actual toll was higher than that. The war ended, Hochschild remarks, just as senselessly as it had begun.
Adolph Hitler’s rise to power a decade later would spend a great deal of rhetoric on the injustices of the Versailles treaty, but the ground work of resentment had been laid during the war years, and at the time of the Armistice. The German public, steeped in misinformation from their government and censored press, could not understand how their ‘unconquered’ soldiers would be yielding to British, French, and American occupation. Hundreds of thousands of German army and navy deserters returned to their friends and families with self-justifying tales of mismanagement and betrayal by midlevel military bureaucracy, and by civilian war profiteers who would become identified as Jews. The socialist party Chancellor, Friedrich Ebert, who took office on November 9, was held responsible, along with his entire party, for the terms of the Armistice signed two days later. Those who participated in the negotiations would become known as the “November traitors,” and the chief German delegate to the conference, Matthias Erzberger, was assassinated two years later by a right-wing death squad. Well before an Armistice was even in view, German high command was accusing German Jews of failing to serve in the military or contribute to the war effort. “We shall win the war when the home front stops attacking us from behind,” declared Colonel Max Bauer, an influential military strategist, in 1918.
But by this point traditional Germany was collapsing from within: inspired by the Russian Revolution, workers and soldiers were forming soviets, or councils. And mutinous crews in the German Navy, ordered to sea for a suicidal last-ditch foray against the British, seized control of their war ships, ran up the red flag, arrested their officers, and made common cause with rebellious workers and soldiers ashore. When Kaiser Wilhelm II went to Western Front military headquarters in Belgium in the last weeks of the war, he found a soldiers’ soviet, and troops who refused to salute their officers. As news came that the red flag had been raised over his own palace, back in Berlin, the Kaiser fled across the border to neutral Holland. It became easy to blame socialists, pacifists, and Jews for abandoning the war, and thus betraying the country. I submit that no matter how generous the Versailles treaty had turned out to be, once the world wide depression of 1929 was in full force, the political climate in Germany would still have been ripe for the rise of fascism.
In fact, the end of war is a perilous time, as much as any right minded person wants any war to end as quickly as possible. This is why I think that Millay, though she is speaking to the approaching end of a different war, has a message that is relevant for us today. Whether you win or lose – but especially if you win – look to your values. Just because your army prevailed, doesn’t mean that your principles did, or will. The heart, she says, pleads for the lives of those we love to be spared, as it should. The mind, on the other hand, has a different job; that is, to notice what is being thought and taught and preached and prayed at our very own dinner tables – perhaps even at the Welcome Home parties for those lucky ones who survived the carnage.
Let us forget such words, and all they mean,
as Hatred, Bitterness and Rancor, Greed,
let us renew our faith and pledge unto humanity;
our right to be
each ourselves, and free.
If we give bigotry, greed and hatred room in our conversations and communities, and in our hearts, then all the nobility and courage of our soldiers has been in vain, and all their sacrifice a waste, because the next war will be already brewing. If we tolerate propaganda, if we justify the starving of children, if we dehumanize others based on their ethnicity or race, or kill to preserve privilege, or let young men die needlessly when the outcome is already determined, we are sowing the seeds of future destruction; almost certainly, our own.
The war that was meant to end all wars made the even more terrible war that followed inevitable, because it ended in lies, suspicion, and completely pointless violence and death. Dearly beloved, what have we learned? Or when will we ever? To love your country is not to lie to it, or for it, or about it. It takes courage to face death, yes; and to be willing to lay down your life for the sake of those you love is one of the finest aspects of our humanity. Those who did it a hundred years ago, and those who do it yet today, deserve our memory and gratitude. More to the point, they deserve our support, as they try to weave their lives back into the world that is ordinary to the rest of us because of their extraordinary service. They deserve our respectful compassion, and our help, most of all when they wrestle with the inner demons and the physical challenges they might never have encountered if not for their journey through the various traumas of war. I urge you, if you have not yet visited the Veterans Community Project, go see what they are doing. If you have not made a generous contribution to their work in this month’s special collection, take your last opportunity next week to do so.
And, remember that war is not the only service that a nation needs. Indeed, if the rest of us did our parts as citizens with the same courage and resilience and persistence and care for one another that most soldiers have, we wouldn’t need the wasteful, greed and ego-driven catastrophe of war to settle the power struggles of ambitious, resentful demagogues. If we all held our leaders accountable for the values of honesty, humility, wisdom, honor and justice, there would be no eleventh hours of eleventh days to plant the seeds for another generation of war to come. It *is* noble to give your life for what you believe in; it is still better to live your life for what you believe in, so that your example might make a world without war more possible, and more likely. That is what every soul who sleeps in Flanders fields, and every other soldier’s grave, marked or unmarked, would ask of us today.
A hundred years has passed, and more now, for that fateful eleventh hour has come and gone. And they are gone now, too, the generation of old men who remembered the trenches and the mustard gas, who bore the remnants of that war in their bodies. They were glad when it ended, nearly all of them; glad to be done with the dirt and the danger and the blood, glad to go home to their families, glad to forget as much as possible. And then, twenty years later, they sent their children off to a different war, to do it all over again – and to be glad when that war, in its turn, finally ended.
Another of my favorite poets, Phyllis McGinley, puts it this way, in her description of the end of war:
Savor the hour as it comes. Preserve it in amber.
Instruct the mind to cherish its sound and its shape.
Cut out the newspaper clippings. Forever remember
The horns and the ticker tape,
The flags, the parades, the radio talking and talking,
Ceaselessly crying the tale on the noisy air
(But omitting for once the commercials), the sirens shrieking,
The bulletins in Times Square,
The women kneeling in churches, the people’s laughter,
The speeches, the rumors, the tumult loud in the street.
Remember it shrewdly so you can say hereafter,
“That moment was safe and sweet.
Safe was the day and the world was safe for living,
For Democracy, Liberty, all of the coin-bright names.
Were not the bomb bays empty, the tanks unmoving,
The cities no more in flames?
That was an island in time, secure and candid,
When we seemed to walk in freedom as in the sun,
With a promise kept, with the dangers of battle ended,
And the fearful perils of peace not yet begun.”
In every generation, there are people who put their bodies between their fellow citizens and harm, on behalf of this nation. Sometimes on a bridge in Alabama, sometimes on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, sometimes in the desert sands of the Middle East, or the jungles of Asia, or the muddy trenches of France. Love of country takes many forms of courage, and of sacrifice. We who would remember and give thanks for those costly gifts laid on the altar of liberty have a responsibility to see to it that the nation that receives them remains worthy of them. A hundred years from now, may the concept of armistice be an anachronism of a by-gone era, our children having discovered that it is not a war that will end all wars, but rather the steadfast practices of human kinship and peace. That would be the most fitting tribute to the century of veterans we honor today.