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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
On this day a hundred and three years ago, the nations embroiled in what was known as the Great War laid down their arms and stopped fighting.
Obviously none could have known that the four-year conflict had only been the first of the world wars, that within twenty years all hopes of a lasting peace would be eroded and the guns would fire again.
What horrifies us today is that the 1918 ceasefire had been arranged some time previously, and the many killed in the hours after the agreement but before 11 a.m. on November 11 actually died needlessly. That is not to say that any who died between 1914 and 1918 did so needfully, as we have all learned the entire war was one of pointless aggression, achieved nothing whatsoever, and effectively wiped out an entire generation of European adolescents.
In his role as Captain Blackadder, British television actor Rowan Atkinson remarks in a First World War trench scene that the entire conflict in which thousands will die when they rush into German machine gun fire in Flanders amounts to nothing more than a concerted effort to move the field marshal’s drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
Thirty years ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fragmentation of poorly coupled states at its periphery, the map of Europe looked frighteningly similar to the multi-colored jumble of 1914. Sure enough, in the years since, thousands upon thousands have been killed, and more may yet die before a permanent peace is achieved.
In the Middle East, in Africa, and in Southeast Asia, similar conflicts have boiled for decades, some of them on religious grounds, others territorial, a great number political. The world’s superpowers have been drawn ever closer to all-out open warfare by having allied themselves with opposing forces and done their fighting by proxy.
My generation, the first born after World War II, grew up in a time during which fingers wavered and trembled over the nuclear trigger, and we spent our formative years under the impression that we might, in fact, be the last generation. It was an age of what Reagan and Gorbachev recognized as mutually assured destruction, whose acronym was more than prophetic. Those who failed to understand it, maybe blinded by hawkishness, might at least have seen, as Holly Johnson sang in 1984, “When two tribes go to war, a point is all you can score.”
For many of us, the line encapsulates what we see as the futility of war. We’ve seen little or nothing good come of it, and we fail repeatedly to understand why any nation’s government would push its uniformed masses into the fire just to gain a piece of ground or further to subjugate a defenseless population.
None of this, however, takes into consideration the men and women on the front line, the patriots who serve their country and who will fight for the values in which they and their loved ones believe.
These are the people who have answered a call to duty, who for centuries upon centuries have defended their shores and their homesteads from all enemies foreign and domestic, and for whom the bells have tolled.
These are the people we salute today. Without them and without their predecessors, our way of life may long ago have been trampled, and the bright futures we hope for our children darkened by fear and uncertainty.
We may not always understand the reasons that nations go to war, but we must stand by the men and women who go forth on our behalf and on behalf of the land that they love.