emember the war to end all wars? The war to make the world safe for democracy? The guns of August? The good ship Goeben that put out to sea because they told her to? (A terror to her foes was she and also to her crew.) Kaiser Bill? The sick man of Europe? The Zimmermann telegram? Uncle Sam’s Boys at the Capture of Boston?
No? Well, neither do I. The Great War, later downgraded by its flashier sequel to the First World War, or World War I, has finally slipped out of living memory. Oh, I’m sure there are a few aging souls who can still remember some aspect of the war as it impinged on their childhood, but those who directed it, fought it, and suffered through it are now gone, and their memories survive only as oral tradition or written narrative. Or bizarre mementos encased in old metal boxes passed down to uncomprehending family members.
I have—or used to have maybe—a small box containing a 1918 Red Cross lapel pin, a hand-embroidered handkerchief with an American flag, and other disjecta membra of the Great War. I know their stories, involving a great-uncle whose troop-ship docked in France just after the war ended and a great-aunt who did volunteer work as a young woman, but when I’m gone even those faint aftertraces of memories will fade into the Great Darkness.
Even the holidays we erect to commemorate events regarded as significant by one generation fade over time. Today is Armistice Day, commemorating the cessation of hostilities arranged by Erich Ludendorff to give German the breathing space to prepare for the next war, and reminding us that war is a thing not to be entered into lightly. Or rather, today was Armistice Day. When the War to End All Wars proved to be only the first in a series—easily surpassed by the Second War to End All Wars, and then the Third (a.k.a. the Cold War)—Armistice Day was repurposed as Veterans Day, a day to remember all the veterans of wars past and yet to come. And as the Mad Tea Partiers subsume the day into Freedom Week—celebrating America’s propensity for aggrandizing its own freedom by crushing the freedom of others—the memories of the day dissipate further.
I’d rather keep the original name. As cartoonist Walt Kelly once wrote:
The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name “Armistice Day.” Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful. [from Ten Ever-lovin’ Blue-eyed Years with Pogo, as quoted by Vagabond Scholar]
But time passes, life goes on, and one generation’s vital memories become another’s old handkerchiefs and buttons, to be discarded like yesterday’s candy-wrappers and milk-cartons. Or recycled into something more useful to the present moment, like an old gramophone case doing duty as a liquor cabinet. It’s the way of things—but I don’t have to like it.