Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From Armistice Day

While peoples in Europe commemorate this as the end of World War One, we have refashioned it our Veterans Day. It is an unusual day to commemorate our veterans in that World War One became a forgotten war by World War Two and beyond. Not only that, it was a war we never even fought in until the very end (the last year, basically). Maybe it is better that way, though. The veterans of that war deserve greater recognition anyway.

If one dates the rise of the American empire, with all of its trappings, World War One was in many ways the beginning of the end of our republic and crossover to an imperial, Praetorian state. It is what facilitated World War Two, our inevitable involvement in that conflict, and by extension what we have become today (a country with half of the world's military spending, with bases and facilities in the majority of the countries of the world, and all of this with a mere 5% of the planet's population and a quarter of its economy). Those were unforeseen consequences in World War One. If nothing else, at least Congress declared war on the Germans.

Nevertheless, while it was not the perfect war, we should commemorate some of the folks without whose service we would not have even the remains of our empire. One of those unsung heroes was my great grandfather. He was by all accounts in my family an anti-war person when the the great war started. This was not surprising because many ethnic Germans in this country (the majority most likely [being the pre-Gallup poll era]) were opposed to American involvement in World War One, to which my grandfather suffered some of the effects even before our going to war. He lost his job, and from what I gather it was a consequence of the patriotic fervor that swept up this country during that war. To give people an understanding of what nationalism was like in this country during World War One, already by 1916-17 anti-war dissidents in many parts of this country who had the misfortune of having an ethnic German name risked losing their job and were also faced with an angry population clamoring for sedition laws to suppress and imprison such peoples as suspected traitors. Indeed, our entrance into that conflict led to such acts by our government. This was also the time when German-sounding street names were rechristened with British ones, when Beethoven was banned from our orchestra halls, and when sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage" (alas, freedom fries some years later during another American conflict a half world away).

At that point, my great grandfather faced a choice. Either continue to be antiwar and face the consequences of that choice (meaning possibly jail or worse [this was a time when antiwar Americans were being rounded up and expelled from the US]), or do something he never intended: volunteer for service. My family never said why he chose to volunteer. It was not stated because it was understood by all that it was his way of trying to prove that he was indeed a loyal American. There were many like him in that conflict. It seems crazy to do something like this, just to prove a point, but if you do it to prove that you belong in the society that has suddenly persecuted you for being who you are and threatens to remove you from its midst because of the issue, it is not that shocking. I understand his choice and might have made the same one, if it had been me, especially when you consider the context of being a second generation American (at that time) and wanting to demonstrate that you belong and not wanting to make a choice that would possibly imperil your family and loved ones.

My great grandfather served with distinction in World War One, came home, and immediately put the war behind him, having figured that he proved himself. He never spoke again of the war, of anything relating to it, and went back into the coal mines, as so many of the men in my family did until the 1950s. Like virtually all of the men who were miners in my family, he never made it to 60, dying of black lung. It was a hellish death, worse than anything he faced in the war, which is the most depressing part of his life's story. He deserved a better fate, but this country is not a just one at times, and it was not until the safety regulations of the '60s and '70s that the mining industry began to take seriously the health and safety of its workers. It took the piled bodies of thousands upon thousands of men in those mines just to get to that point, and I suppose that is the legacy of my great grandfather.

Another unsung hero, and one I grew up hearing much about, was my great uncle. He came from the German side of my family, as well, actually knew my great grandfather and worked as a coal miner. And like my great grandfather he volunteered for service, to fight in World War Two. He grew up in a household that stressed Americanization following World War One, which was imposed on countless German-American households (especially the importance of speaking English [many ethnic Germans in the Midwest until World War One refused to speak anything other than German]). My great grandfather insisted on this in his household and over time by force of personality on the remainder of my family.

This was the America my great uncle grew up in. When Hitler came to power, it was understood early on what he represented politically, to my family, and for that matter to this country. It was a threat more personal to people in my family than they ever felt about Kaiser Wilhelm, and once Pearl Harbor was bombed there was even less doubt as to the legitimacy of their cause. My great uncle went to boot camp in the Army in 1942, trained stateside as an infantryman, was finally shipped to Europe, and made it through D-Day. Unfortunately, he did not make it to the end of the war. He was killed right after crossing the Rhine. I grew up knowing quite a bit about my great uncle, whose sacrifice was a point of pride in my family, but I always wondered to myself: what would have become of him had he survived World War Two? He almost certainly would have gone back to those mines, the same ones that killed my grandfather, great grandfather, uncles, and the other great uncles who stayed in them. That is an industry I do not mourn the loss of in my family tree.

The legacy of those wars remain with us, though. They made us into who we are, for better or for worse. I think of those consequences often when I see what we have become, and fear for our future (as all subjects and citizens of any empire should), but I still cannot help but to admire those in my family who paved the way. Sometimes we forget how spoiled we are as a society, as people, and just how little work we do compared to the past. It reminds me of that speech in The Life of Brian, when one of the members of the People's Front of Judea asked what the Roman Empire ever brought them.

I guess that is my consolation for this day. Here is to hoping we still have it a hundred November 11ths from now.

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