In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…
— Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, 1915
This is the 11th day of the 11th month of 2018. I might drag my lawn chair to the corner today and wait for Rick to drive by. I don’t know Rick’s real name. It might be Steve. It could be Gunther. Or Günther. The point is that Rick drives a green Jeep. Army green. Rick’s Jeep is equipped with a moron switch. If you haven’t seen these, the switch lets your vehicle spew dense black smoke for a while. ‘Cuz you know, freedom. Yes, you’re right, Rick’s Jeep is festooned with a large United States flag. Lucky guess.
Why would I sit on the curb waiting for Rick? Because I enjoy irony. Rick doesn’t know it but he is sending a mixed message. From the comfort of his hermetically sealed, air conditioned cab he doesn’t see what is happening on his ass-end. The flag is not bravely unfurled. The squared-off tail of his Jeep literally sucks. His flag hangs limp in the vacuum. And when he passes a Prius and hits his moron switch he adds another coat of oily soot to those abused colors.
And why would I expect Rick today? He would, undoubtedly, be heading out to a Veterans Day event, ready to remember all of our veterans, living and dead, who have made sacrifices for our freedom. Rick remembers. Except that he doesn’t.
Veterans Day was once called Armistice Day. In our allied countries, it is still called Remembrance Day. It commemorates the day that saw a hastily patched together armistice silence some of the most horrendous battlefields the world had ever seen. That armistice held and World War 1 ended 100 years ago today.
How long ago was 100 years? Do you remember, or know about, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the Tet Offensive and the Prague Spring; that Peggy Fleming spun her way to a gold medal in Grenoble and our astronaut’s first moon orbit? Those all happened in 1968, the mid-point of the past 100 years. It was fifty years from when World War 1 ended to when those things happened. And it has been fifty years since. Put another way, there were still World War 1 vets around to see those things happen.
In the long view of history we get to distill things. Well distilled, World War 1 began with a violent act of wild-eyed populism. The world was shrinking. Steam ships, the Suez Canal, the Trans-Atlantic cable, had helped bring a wave of globalism. Oligarchy and imperialism had seen to it that the lion’s share went to the already well-heeled. The crumbs went to Lazarus. Oligarchy and imperialism also saw to it that the lid remained on that pressure cooker. But the deepening socioeconomic rift, particularly in class conscious Europe, left many ready to defy convention. The shot that killed Archduke Ferdinand and Sophie, meant to be a political statement from the disenfranchised Balkans, bloodied nearly the entire world.
Of course the United States got involved. We were a rising star in globalism. But it’s hard to inspire a nation to enter a foreign conflict where commanders are marching the rank-and-file into machine gun nests, where tanks and mustard gas add to the horror. And so you tell the plebes that it is about freedom. That this is the war to end all wars. That when this is over our rising economic star can outshine all others. After all, the Panama Canal was just completed. And in case they don’t believe you, you conscript them. And so we marched into Europe to George M. Cohan tunes.
The Great War ended. The troops climbed from the trenches and went home. But the strife caused by that bullet in Sarajevo didn’t end when the clocks in Paris struck eleven. The war unleashed a global pandemic. It left the European economy in shambles. We shored it up until Black Tuesday in October 1929 and then the world collapsed into the Great Depression. Societal turmoil gave rise to crime syndicates. And, of course, the ghosts of Versailles haunted Europe until it, and nearly the entire world, boiled into war again. It’s hard to believe that a simple assassination caused millions of deaths and decades of turmoil. But it happened just that way.
Why would you want to remember all of that? You wouldn’t. Pesky Armistice Day becomes Veterans Day. Now we get to wave flags and cheer our troops just like Memorial Day, July 4th, Flag Day, and every nationally televised sport event. But we don’t have to spend a moment thinking about our past.
And maybe it’s just as well. The Great War’s dead still remain under the poppies in Flanders fields. The horrifically wounded are themselves long dead, replaced by the horrifically wounded of WWII, Korea, Vietnam. And they will soon be gone and replaced by the next wave. But nothing’s changed. Our current crop of plutocrats and oligarchs have kept the lid on this pressure cooker too long. Our mettle is stretched. Vote, they say, things will get better. And we did. In record numbers. And we woke up to Wednesday’s child. Globalism is rampant. Populism rises. It remains tamped for now because Rick believes in his man in office. But the veneer won’t hold. President Everyman is a plutocrat dressed in an emperor’s new clothes. In short, things sit now pretty much as they sat in Sarajevo in June 1914.
If you were in Britain or France today someone might hand you a poppy. In John McCrae’s home country someone surely would. No one will here. We don’t remember. We don’t want to. So I will sit in my lawn chair and wonder. Rick has a 100% American-made machine equipped with a flag and a moron switch. I wonder, does he have a gun?