We are profoundly saddened by the deaths of 8,000 American, coalition, and NATO soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan during our 10 years at war there. We dwell on the loss of so many young people and feel the despair it brings to the families, friends, and partners with whom they shared their short lives.
So to help us understand why the day World War I ended, Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice Day, meant so much to my generation, let me go back to just one other day in that war, July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme in France. On that day alone, 20,000 British, 10,000 French, and 30,000 German soldiers were killed. Just one day. Sixty thousand men. Dead. Another 120,000 were wounded or missing.
For such a horrific event to occur, it was necessary for the commanders of these forces to make an abundance of stupid mistakes. The most notable of these men was Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France. General Haig had ordered his troops to attack the Germans to ease pressure on French forces that were defending Verdun. The general was so confident his preceding artillery barrage would crush German resistance, he told his men they could safely walk across the open ground between the British and German lines carrying 80-pound loads of equipment and supplies.
General Haig apparently had not learned of or failed to heed intelligence that the Germans had built deep tunnels and dugouts that would enable them to withstand the British artillery.
Compounding this misjudgment, Haig’s Command ordered junior British officers leading the attack to carry sidearms, perhaps to forestall dereliction among the ranks. The order amounted to a death sentence. The visible pistols immediately identified the officers to the Germans, who made them the first targets.
When the barrage lifted for the British to attack, the Germans reappeared on the surface of their trenches and with their machine guns slaughtered the officers and overladen, leaderless British soldiers by the thousands as they struggled across the unsheltered, deafening battlefield and became enmeshed in barbed wire Haig had assured them his artillery barrage would eliminate.
There were similarly horrific events. In this four-year war that ended with the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, armies were decimated, families, villages, and towns rent, and nations deprived of the innovative energy of their young men. Six million of the 8 million Frenchmen mobilized became casualties; 9 million of 12 million Russians; 7 million of 7.8 million Austro-Hungarians; 7 million of 11 million Germans; 500,000 of 750,000 Romanians.
And on it went. Across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and on the seas. The U.S.A., not spared, suffered 300,000 casualties during its one and a half years in this war.
In its 1926 resolution encouraging all states to recognize Nov. 11 as a legal holiday, Congress urged that it “be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” It urged the president to invite “the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.” There was no swagger or triumphalism.
But in President Eisenhower’s 1954 resolution that changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day, references to peace and understanding were omitted, to be replaced by an emphasis on patriotism and sacrifice.
I appreciate those who honor my fellow veterans and me for our service in World War II. But I miss the focus on peace and understanding that marked the original Armistice Day and regret the muscular tone that increasingly defines the day’s ceremonies. World War II G.I.s were never very military. Whether marching as trainees in boot camp or through the cities of Europe as liberators, there was always a schlep to our stride and slope to our shoulders.
The hubris that marked the Battle of the Somme was also present in U.S. forces during World War I and has plagued us since.
In 1918, General Pershing, commander of American Expeditionary Force, ordered his men to attack the Germans between the time the armistice was signed and was officially to take effect. Soldiers died because of this, right up to the war’s final minutes.
In 1941, our admirals (and J. Edgar Hoover, head of the F.B.I.) ignored evidence that the Japanese intended to attack Pearl Harbor.
In 1951, Gen. Douglas MacArthur pushed President Truman to drop nuclear bombs on China when their Army made him look amateurish at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Truman bent, then held firm and refused.
In 1962, Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay persistently pressured President Kennedy to bomb Cuba. We now know this probably would have started a full-scale nuclear war.
In 1983, a strident interplay of “evil empire” speeches by President Reagan, our insertion of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Germany within five minutes of flying time to Moscow, a Korean passenger plane’s intrusion into sensitive Russian airspace, and seemingly provocative NATO war games led Soviet Prime Minister Yuri Andropov and other Russian leaders to believe the U.S. was within days of launching a nuclear strike on the U.S.S.R.
At the height of Andropov’s concern, Soviet spy satellites flashed word that the U.S. had launched five nuclear missiles at the U.S.S.R. from our Midwest. They would strike Russian cities within 25 minutes. Despite the tight window of time for the Russians to respond, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet early-warning officer who received the report, was skeptical and decided to be sure we were actually attacking before informing his superiors. Andropov, so nervous about our intentions at the time, might well have ordered an immediate counterstrike.
Of course, we were not attacking. The Russian satellite equipment had erred. Armageddon was averted and Colonel Petrov, who quite possibly saved a billion lives and the civilizations of two continents, was reprimanded by his superiors for following improper procedures.
We have been spared by happenstance — the fortunate presence of wise, strong people in the right place at the right time to trump the misjudgments and paranoia of the Andropovs, MacArthurs, and LeMays.
Our luck could run out.
This Veterans Day, let’s take a small start in the right direction. Let’s go back to the thoughts that inspired the original Congressional resolution. This year, let’s leave our uniforms in the closet, our medals in their boxes, and go out to work and pray for peace and understanding between people. I shall find a place of worship and do this, this coming Sunday, Nov. 11.
Richard Rosenthal is a veteran of World War II, his father of World War I. He lives in East Hampton.