Since 2018, when we passed the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, it has seemed less relevant to commemorate Veterans Day with the annual post we used to use (the last iteration was here).
As we honor military veterans on 11 November, however, I miss an integral element of that old annual post: the John McCrae poem from 1915, “In Flanders Fields.”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The poem goes well, as a quick aside, with a brief passage from World War I air combat ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s autobiography from 1967, which a tweep circulated at Twitter today.
11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. pic.twitter.com/FW9vERm7Lr
— Dan (@DanLtcR) November 11, 2020
A powerful passage, no less for the pilot’s “God’s eye view” than for the profound developments he witnessed on the ground below him. After World War I, we would never see war in the same way again. In terms of blood, terror, and destruction in some countries of Europe, World War I more than decimated a generation of young men, and left a whole civilization staggering. It might have been the first “nuclear war” – the war that left behind a clanging silence and a metaphorical toxicity that still lives in our DNA today.
Yet in 2020, with all we have gone through in the last decade, I think many Americans would say we have caught John McCrae’s torch.
The dead in Flanders Fields didn’t really perceive it at the time, I think, but the war was started by empires, on the premise that empires police their precincts with limited wars. Yet it ended up being about the break-up of empires, when war spiraled almost immediately out of the empires’ complacent control.
The Cold War paradigm over the ensuing century – the paradigm of rival blocs, keeping war “limited” and “under control” – was unraveling by the 1990s. There are probably few today who don’t recognize in these brief sentences the enduring problem of men: that peoples in their nations and tribes are called to fight wars, but the momentum of political power is always seeking a supranational excuse for regularizing “little” wars and favoring them as a constant tool.
Americans instinctively know that empires bring more wars, not fewer. Over the centuries, Europeans have had ample opportunity to learn the same lesson, and many still understand it. The surge of so-called “populism” in much of the world today, and not just the West, is largely about not being dragooned into empires, in which taxes and mandates on the people, and each generation’s fighting men, are devoted to the agendas of rulers at some level that can’t be held accountable.
In Flanders Fields, the dead were buried from a terrible fight in which policy, in essence, groped for a way out of that death spiral. The determined push for national self-rule a century later is evidence that the spirit of power in peace still motivates their descendants.
We don’t fight for abstractions that may bring others unknown to us under the rule of emperors. We fight so that fighting will stop, and we will have homes to go home to when it does. We fight so that the vulnerable and beloved among us can live securely in peace. We fight so that empires cannot prey on us, whether attacking us in our cities and farms or denying us tradeways and travel and interaction with our fellow men. We fight so that self-organizing “tribes,” subject to ideological fits, cannot wage guerrilla war among us.
The homely American veteran won independence for a nation, and protected it in its earliest years to unify under the most remarkable Constitution ever written: one that has not a single aspirational passage – not one sentence that incites mendacious or demagogic interpretation – but only clear statements of practices and limits.
The veteran went on to fight the armies of Europe in the Americas to protect that young nation; and, against all odds, went on to preserve the Union while permanently eliminating the awful legacy of slavery as an institution.
The American citizen-soldier fought in Europe and the Far East in the last century, as technology and geopolitics turned the great oceans into borders for our maritime continent that can never dispense with a forward security perimeter. When the Iron Curtain of Communism descended on much of Asia and Eastern Europe, the veteran stood overwatch for more than 40 years.
More recently, the American veteran has been called on to stand overwatch where terrorism is spawned. Our men and women in arms have always performed beyond expectations, but recent years, the people they serve have grown increasingly dubious about the politics and purposes of our fighting.
In daring to have such concerns and opinions, they could not be raising higher the torch of Flanders Fields. War has its own logic, but if the life of war is not about ending war, and going home because there’s a home to go to when it’s over, then there is no torch, but only darkness.
The American people are our veterans, and the veterans are the people. This is a civilizational legacy of our origins in the Europe of yeomen: of farmers, entrepreneurs, artisans, inventors, pioneers, who brought their own arms to battle and went home with them, or on them. We owe a debt there is no repaying to those who didn’t come home. But we are here today because of those who did: because war has a purpose, and some come back home for it.
Over the decades, the makeup of these two groups has expanded far beyond the original demographics, to every race, ethnicity, and creed – and to the enrichment of all humanity.
That’s because prosperity, hope, and a future are the main effort. If America is not about that, she is not about anything. Prosperity is about our children, about those – husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, dearest friends – whose lives we cherish above even our own.
War is the supporting effort. That’s what Veterans Day is about. Veterans know that the value of giving life and service is not measured in the blood of combat but in hope and a future, the blessings of liberty.
Let the Dead sleep well, under the poppies where they grow. A veteran’s heart, and the heart of his or her people: that is the torch of Flanders Fields. On Veterans Day 2020, hold it high.