Lest We Forget

[ Posted Monday, November 12th, 2018 – 18:54 UTC ]

Today, I am reprinting an old column about World War I, since yesterday was the centenary of the armistice which ended the war, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Over the years I've been blogging, I have written about "The Great War" twice (both of which were actually written for Memorial Day rather than Armistice Day). In 2009, I wrote of honoring all the war dead, most certainly including the tens of thousands of soldiers who died of the Spanish Influenza after being called up.

But a year earlier I wrote a column to honor the soldiers who fought in this most brutal of wars. In it, I quoted another article about the battle of the Meuse-Argonne which generally pointed out Americans' lack of interest in World War I (compared to World War II and the Civil War). My article ends with a plug for a French organization which is dedicated to laying flowers on American soldiers' graves in Normandy. The level of dedication the French give to the slain of both world wars should impress every American. This is the column I've chosen to run again today.

But I have to add at least a short note of condemnation for President Donald Trump before we get to that. Trump's actions over the weekend were (to use a word he loves throwing around with abandon) nothing short of disgraceful. He only went to the centenary because the Pentagon essentially denied him his own military parade, and his boredom with the entire process was evident to all. And yet, for some reason, prominent ex-military voices are silent here at home. Just imagine what they would have said if a Democrat had put in a similar performance on the world's stage at a solemn event to honor our war dead.

Three out of our last four presidents have been draft-dodgers from the Vietnam era. Lest we forget in this time of abnormalcy, this used to be a very big political issue. Let's just quickly compare their records:

Bill Clinton -- first received educational deferments from the draft as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England. He protested actively against the war while in college. When he was due to return (and be eligible for the draft once again), there are accusations he tried to get another deferment on shaky grounds, but he eventually did draw a draft number that was too high for him to be called up before the end of the war. In 1992, Clinton beat George H. W. Bush for the presidency. Bush volunteered for the Navy on his 18th birthday, six months after Pearl Harbor, and became a bomber pilot. His plane was shot down by the Japanese during a bombing run, and he eventually flew 58 combat missions and won the Distinguished Flying Cross medal. Four years later, Clinton beat Robert Dole. Dole had volunteered for the Army in 1942, and was severely injured by German machine gun fire in Italy -- wounds that he would bear for the rest of his life (including a lack of mobility in his right arm). So you can bet that Clinton's draft-dodging was an enormous issue in both campaigns, as the generational shift from the World War II generation to the Vietnam generation was made in American politics.

George W. Bush -- won the presidency in 2000, beating Al Gore. In a surprising twist, Republican Bush was the one who had successfully dodged the draft, getting a spot in the Texas Air National Guard, while Gore actually enlisted during Vietnam. He served duty in Vietnam (although only as a military journalist), while Bush's service with the National Guard still has plenty of unanswered questions. Four years later, Bush won again against an authentic Vietnam War hero who had enlisted very early on (1966). But John Kerry -- after winning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts -- returned home to become a prominent outspoken opponent of the war, eventually tossing his medals on the steps of Congress in protest and famously asking, while testifying in a Senate committee hearing: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Kerry's Vietnam service was brutally attacked (which coined the new political term "to be swiftboated"), which was condoned by plenty of Republicans.

Barack Obama -- our only recent president who didn't actually dodge the Vietnam War draft -- but (to be fair) he certainly may have done so if the war hadn't ended before he was eligible to be drafted. Who knows what he would have done, but it's certainly not outside of the realm of possibilities. Plenty of other liberals (and conservatives, as Dubya proves) were dodging the draft in all kinds of creative ways at the time, but again, Obama was too young to have to make that decision. To win the presidency in 2008, Obama beat John McCain, another authentic Vietnam War hero. McCain, while flying his 23rd combat bombing mission over North Vietnam, was shot down and taken prisoner by the Viet Cong. He was held for over five years, and repeatedly tortured during that time. In 2012, Obama beat Mitt Romney to win the presidency. Romney had dodged the draft for most of the war, receiving multiple student deferments and a religious missionary deferment while living in France. Eventually Romney did draw a high draft deferment number, and like Clinton saw the war end before being called up. During his presidency, Obama was criticized by Republicans for such perceived slights to the military as saluting Marines while holding a coffee cup.

Donald Trump -- dodged the Vietnam draft using medical deferments (for supposed "bone spurs" that never seemed to trouble him ever again for the rest of his life). Ran against an opponent who was the right age for the Vietnam draft, but didn't even have to dodge it, because it didn't apply to women. Hillary Clinton would never have been drafted, so it wasn't really an issue for her. During the 2016 campaign, Trump attacked fellow Republican (and former prisoner of war) John McCain during the primary season because he didn't think McCain was a real war hero "because he was captured." In the general election campaign, Trump brutally attacked two Gold Star parents who opposed him. Again, the Republican Party (for the most part -- there were notable exceptions) looked the other way.

Since becoming president, Trump has not found the time to visit any American troops in a combat zone, even though the American military is currently deployed in multiple such zones. Both of the two men who preceded him in the job found the time to do so in their first two years in office, but Bush says he's been "too busy." Earlier this year, Trump instructed the Pentagon to stage a giant military parade, because Trump liked the one he had seen in Paris, France. When the cost proved to be prohibitive, Trump decided to spend this year's Veterans' Day in France, so he could see another parade. Weeks before the midterm election, Trump ordered thousands of American soldiers to deploy to our southern border, where they will remain until December (missing Thanksgiving with their families) even though they have absolutely no authority to actually apprehend any border-crossers. Using the Pentagon for political stunts used to be absolutely unthinkable in America, but that was before Trump took the reins of power.

During this year's Armistice Day trip to Paris, Trump refused to attend a ceremony at Belleau Wood, where one of the most brutal battles the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought took place in World War I. Trump couldn't be bothered to attend because "it was raining." Then, flying back from Paris, Trump sent out a tweet expressing his wishes that Florida halt recounting votes and just use the Election Day totals instead -- which would invalidate thousands of votes from members of the military serving overseas.

This, of course, is just a partial list of the many ways Trump has dishonored the military. Again, just for one moment imagine what ex-military officers would be saying now if Barack Obama or Bill Clinton had done even one of these disgraceful actions. Which is worth thinking about, while we remember the sacrifices made during the "War To End All Wars."


Memorial Day Thoughts

Originally published 5/26/08

There is an American flag flying in front of my house today. I am not right-wing, I am not pro-war, I am not making a political statement of any kind by flying Old Glory. I was brought up to respect and honor the flag, but not to treat it as a sacred object. "Sacred" is in the realm of religion. The flag is not a religious item, therefore "sacred" is a word which just cannot apply. But while I do honor the flag, and the soldiers who fought under it for our country, I am appalled that it has become a politicized object, as if it belonged to only one political party. It does not. It belongs to all of us. It belongs to soldiers and pacifists. It belongs to those for whom America can do no wrong, and it belongs to those who only see the bad in what America does in the world. It belongs to an 18-year old leftist, voting in his first election ever, and it belongs to a cranky old right-winger who has voted since the Great Depression. It belongs to Democrats, and yes, to Republicans.

Never forget that -- the flag belongs to all of us, and many display it for many reasons, so don't just automatically make an assumption about anyone who chooses to fly it in front of their house, or for that matter, someone who doesn't always wear a flag pin on his lapel. Patriotism is an intensely personal thing, and it manifests itself differently in different people.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'm going to cut this column short today, because while the true meaning of this holiday does not escape me, the barbecue still beckons. Ahem.

And after such a rousing, red-white-and-blue intro, I'm going to spend my time here in praise of the French (whose flag, it should be noted, is also red-white-and-blue). If anyone's got a problem with that, I suggest you stop reading now.

George Will has a great profile in his column today of the last surviving American veteran from World War I. While I don't usually link to Will's stories here, today it is entirely appropriate to read about the last living American soldier from what was called at the time "The Great War."

A companion piece, also from the Washington Post today, entitled "Why Didn't We Listen To Their War Stories" raises an interesting point which I've never heard expressed before -- we don't treat World War I the same way we do other wars (World War II, the Civil War) in our popular culture. While literally dozens of movies spring to mind about World War II, the Civil War, or even Vietnam, there are almost none which detail World War I.

This article is a great read, and one part of it leapt out at me:

As we observe Memorial Day, a hard truth remains: Americans haven't forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn't want to hear about them in the first place. The war's last and greatest battle involving U.S. soldiers, fought in the Meuse-Argonne region of eastern France during the autumn of 1918, sucked in more than 1 million U.S. troops and hundreds of airplanes and tanks. Artillery batteries commanded by men such as the young Harry S. Truman fired more than 4 million shells -- more than the Union Army fired during the entire Civil War. More than 26,000 doughboys were killed and almost 100,000 wounded, making the clash probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history. But as far as the American public was concerned, it might as well never have taken place. "Veterans said to me in their speeches and in private that the American people did not know anything about the Meuse-Argonne battle," Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan wrote years later. "I have never understood why."

. . .

Nowhere is our neglect of the doughboys more noticeable than on the battlefields themselves. Although memorials to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II are often swamped with visitors, the battlefields of the Meuse-Argonne remain unvisited and largely unmarked. They have changed little since 1918. The French churches and houses are pocked with bullet holes, and bunkers, trenches and rifle pits surrounded by rusty barbed wire, old equipment, shell fragments and unexploded ordnance are visible almost everywhere you look. During a recent visit to the wooded ridge in the Argonne Forest where the "Lost Battalion" fought German troops in October 1918, I kicked aside some leaves and discovered a spent rifle cartridge and a piece of a flare gun -- not something one would expect to happen at Gettysburg or Antietam.

Memorials erected in the 1920s by veterans' organizations are scattered around the battlefield, but many have fallen into decay. Others are carefully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission but receive few visitors. Romagne, the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe, contains the graves of more than 14,000 doughboys. Located on the site of an old German stronghold in the Meuse-Argonne, it centers around a Romanesque chapel, overlooking rows of crosses and Stars of David on a gently sloping hillside. No U.S. military memorial is more welcoming to visitors; the site enfolds you with a feeling of reverence and peace. The superintendent, Joseph P. Rivers, gladly takes visitors -- he says he gets about 25,000 every year -- on a tour of the cemetery, pointing out individual graves and telling stories of the soldiers buried there.

But on a typical summer day, when the gravestones at World War II's Omaha Beach echo with the squeals of busloads of teenagers shipped in from Paris, Romagne remains deserted. For the most part, the only visitors are British, French, Belgian and German; and it is they, not Americans, who lay flowers on the graves. (So much for French ingratitude.) Gordon Morse, a freelance journalist from Virginia visited the cemetery on Armistice Day in 2006 and was asked to read the presidential proclamation. "I got the job by default," he said. "There were no other American visitors available."

I'm ashamed to say, the author is right -- I have never even heard of the Meuse-Argonne battle. The French still remember, but there's something about a war happening on your own soil that tends to make such memories a bit more long-lasting.

But the story that really made me applaud the French (having never served in the military, while I would like to, I have no right to say what I really want here -- "that really made me salute the French") today comes from National Public Radio.

NPR reports on a French organization called "Les Fleurs de la Mémoire" (Flowers of Remembrance). French people in Normandy volunteer to "adopt" an American soldier's grave. They put flowers on the grave and send photos to American families of the fallen who are unable to make the trip to visit it themselves. So far, they have adopted 8,648 graves.

One of the founders of this organization put it thusly: "When we joined, we promised to visit the grave once a year and to lay flowers on the grave. Sometimes people take flowers from their own gardens. And they say it is like a son, like a cousin, like a brother. It is a member of the family."

French people in Normandy remember D-Day. They love Americans. If you want to see what "American troops being greeted with flowers" truly looks like, check out some newsreels of the liberation of Normandy. And they still remember. And they still love Americans for what they did.

So, this Memorial Day, I would like to thank the French people who keep the spirit of the American Memorial Day alive in their own country.

[I have a general rule against shilling for organizations in my writing. I am breaking that rule today to post the URL of this fine organization, who has a web page up in both French and English (look on the right side of their page), because I believe they are truly worthy of America's support. Les citoyens des Etats-Unis d'Amérique remercions "Les Fleurs de la Mémoire."]

Contact Les Fleurs de la Mémoire at:

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


14 Comments on “Lest We Forget”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    before i digress into soliloquy about pie, i confess i thought based on the title that this was a column on ronald reagan.

  2. [2] 
    MyVoice wrote:

    Democrat Kyrsten Sinema was officially announced as the winner of Arizona’s Senate race on Monday

  3. [3] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Paragraph 9: I believe it was Trump, not Bush, who was "too busy" to attend the ceremony.

    As to your final point: Trump has broken so many norms that one wonders whether the Republican party has been taken over by nihilists. Apart from tax cuts for the rich, is there anything left of GOP ideology?

    Seriously, Paramount and CBS have preserved more of Star Trek's legacy than Trump has of GOP dogma. In ST world, the fans are in revolt, demanding a re-merger of the franchise. When will Republicans revolt? Will they ever?

    Who's more loyal to their cannon, Republicans or Trekkies? At this moment, the convention-goers have it all over the nihilists.

  4. [4] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    And Rest in Peace, Stan Lee.

  5. [5] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    I think we fail to remember our WW I veterans and heroes because it was an unheroic war - kind of like Vietnam, although the differences are vast enough to make for whole 'nother post.

    In short, did we WIN the Great War? It seemed so on Armistice Day, but by September 1939 it was clear that the now 'First' World War had failed to 'end all wars', and had really just been the first active phase of a new European Thirty Years War. How can you feel good remembering a patriotic American boy shipping off to France to fight the Hun, knowing his final sacrifice had zero effect in history?

    Second, did WE win the Great War? As most people know who know the war at all, the American Army was inserted into the Western Front like a widget. We joined the British and French in a muddy killing machine that had been going on for over three years. The Americans operated separately, refusing to be treated as replacements who could be sent piecemeal to shore up depleted French and British units. But we still followed the plans of French General Foch, the Allied commander. He said fight at Meuse-Argonne, we fought at Meuse-Argonne. So did America 'win the war' the way the Union did in the Civil War, or the American Army did in Europe and the Pacific in WW II (apologies to the Red Army at this point)? Not really - most historians I've read agree that the American contribution was good but not great, due to lack of numbers and equipment. 1919 is when D-Day would have been anticipated: a vastly larger fresh American Army had every intention of marching on Berlin itself that year. That never happened, and on Armistice Day, America was (in military, not moral, diplomatic, or financial terms) just a junior partner in the so-called victory.

    And so we don't remember the battles, the heroes, or the lost veterans of that Great War, at least not in the way we do with our two really 'good wars', the Civil War and WW II. They didn't really win, and to the degree that they won in an immediate sense, they won by helping the big boys close the match.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Who's more loyal to their cannon, Republicans or Trekkies? At this moment, the convention-goers have it all over the nihilists.

    the only canon for most politicians is winning elections. the only cannon in star trek shoots photon torpedoes.


  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    oh wait, i think they also have phaser cannons... but alas, still no pie cannons.

  8. [8] 
    TheStig wrote:

    The United States military entered the The First World War too unprepared and too late to make much of a combat contribution on the Western Front. Had the war lasted another year the US would have been a major combat force.

    General Pershing's approach to war was basically a revamp of US Civil War operational doctrine. Pershing's doctrine fell apart during the Argonne Offensive and so did Pershing - who handed direct control of the battle to General Hunter Liggett, who willing to learn from the British and French.

    The most important contributions the United States made to Allied Cause in WWI were loans, manufacturing and shipping. The latter two were financed by the former. WWI created an economic boom in the United States that lasted into the 1920's. Cultural reference: Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks of Little Orphan Annie fame made his money during WW1.

    Since we are only allowed one reference, I nominate the excellent PBS documentary:

  9. [9] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "the tens of thousands of soldiers who died of the Spanish Influenza after being called up."

    It wasn't just thousands of soldiers who died...roughly 675,000 US civilians died of the 1918 flu pandemic. The event was so swift and traumatic that it was largely suppressed from collective memory. My grandmother told my mother of seeing pine box coffins stacked up on the sidewalks of NY city.

  10. [10] 
    John M wrote:

    [5] John M from Ct.

    "How can you feel good remembering a patriotic American boy shipping off to France to fight the Hun, knowing his final sacrifice had zero effect in history?"

    Actually World War I changed history in a lot of profound ways. Some of which would not have happened if the Central Powers and not the allies had won the war. To name just a few:

    1) The German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish empires all collapsed and disappeared. It was the start of the end of colonialism too.

    2) The horrors of trench warfare, the widespread use of chemical weapons and poison gas, the development of tanks and machine guns, of bombing people from the air using airplanes, etc.

    3) All led directly to the update of the Geneva convention. First adopted in 1864, and then revised in 1929 and again in 1949. Something which would not have happened if the Allies had not been the winners. All our ideas of innocent civilian populations, of striking only purely military targets, of minimizing collateral damage to the greatest extent possible, of the very notion of how to conduct warfare, stems from the Allied victory and the attempt to adopt at least some moral standards in regard to warfare.

    4) America became creditor to the world, especially to the devastated European nations, and therefore the leading industrial power for the next century. Again something not likely if Germany had won.

  11. [11] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "the flag belongs to all of us, and many display it for many reasons, so don't just automatically make an assumption about anyone who chooses to fly it in front of their house, or for that matter, someone who doesn't always wear a flag pin on his lapel. Patriotism is an intensely personal thing, and it manifests itself differently in different people."

    I would point out that this idea of personal interpretation is a recent reinterpretation by the US Supreme Court, and that the Court's interpretation is under nearly constant sniping from members of Congress who apparently have both too much time AND money AND American Pie :) on their hands.

    Customs and regulations regarding the US flag were originally practical in nature. The flag was used to identify US Government property or manpower at a distance. The Post Office. A warship. A formation of soldiers. An airship or airplane. Flying it on civilian property or civilians was a form of misinformation. The US military had the prerogative of misidentifying US property under some circumstances (like flying a false flag on a warship) but this was considered bad form by civilians. If your house is not the Post Office, please don't fly the US might confuse people.

    This was this basically the situation in 1942, when my father learned his flag etiquette during what was probably a VERY slow day at Stanton Military Academy. This why my family never, ever, flew the flag on our property, even on the 4th of July! We draped red white and blue bunting instead, because that would not violate military courtesy. My father also had problems with presidential salutes because the President, while commander in chief, was not in uniform. I'm not sure how solid my father's ground was on this point of military etiquette, but I guess he felt it payed to be cautious.

  12. [12] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    John M.
    Thanks for the correction - certainly I vastly oversimplified the effects of the Great War on history.

    But my point was that most Americans thought we fought the war to prevent Germany from taking over Europe and threatening with autocracy and aggressive war the vaguely liberal democratic order that had been worked out in the Atlantic area over the previous century. Ending colonialism, and Eastern empires, and the use of area bombing on cities, was not on the minds of anyone outside of Washington or New York.

    Given why they thought their sons had died in France, most Americans definitely noticed that twenty years later we and our Great War allies were faced with the threat of Germany taking over Europe and threatening, etc., AGAIN.

    All in response to Chris' comment that, world history be damned, US history reckons the first war as being a bit of a dud, glamor and glory wise.

  13. [13] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    The reason that far more Americans visit the battle sites of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars than WWI sites is because Americans don’t need a passport to visit them. WWI did not take place on American soil. I would guess that WWII’s most visited battle site is Pearl Harbor... face it, Americans are not very worldly when it comes to travel!

    I watched a documentary on one small village in France’s devotion to caring for the graves of the American soldiers that died to win the villagers their freedom. It brought me to tears to see the care and honor that they show our fallen even after all these many years! It was humbling to realize we do not honor our own heroes as well as they do ours!

  14. [14] 
    James T Canuck wrote:

    Largely unknown outside of Canada, Sir Arthur Currie emerged as the only General of WW1 to never lose a battle. His string of victories from 1916-17 are widely regarded as being pivotal in Germany's final defeat. Not bad going for a former teacher at a college-preparatory school.

    "Sir Julian Byng, the Canadian Corps commander from 1915 to 1917, groomed Currie as his replacement. When Byng was promoted to army command after his Canadians had successfully stormed Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Currie was appointed in June to head the Canadian Corps. The first and only Canadian soldier to occupy the post, Currie proved an excellent corps commander. His willingness to demand more guns or preparation time prior to major assaults saved Allied lives and enhanced the prospects for success. Under Currie’s leadership, the Canadians cemented their reputation as an elite assault formation, with an unbroken string of major victories in 1917-1918 that included Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, Arras, and the Canal du Nord. He is widely considered to have been among the finest generals of the war."

    There's forgetting, and then there's not knowing.


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