Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armistice Day, 92 years later

Armistice Day, Waterloo, Belgium, 1999
Today is Armistice Day.

Eleven years ago, I stood under a cadet gray sky in Waterloo, Belgium, and watched a slow-moving band of old men march in solemn parade and gather on the steps of a government building.  They were commemorating the end of a terrible chapter in humanity's chronicle.  Eighty-one years earlier, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918, hostilities officially ceased between the warring powers in the conflict known today as World War I.

No historian can clearly articulate the causes of that war, nor even can we understand its results.  All we can say, definitively, is that in the year 1914, massive groups of humans, allied loosely by the geographical location of their homes, perpetrated obscene violence upon one another.  Each of these groups brought to bear all of its productive capacity, ingenuity, and high-minded ideals in order to destroy the others.  They called it "The War to End War."

Some thirty-seven million persons were killed or wounded in four and a half years before the warring factions, out of sheer exhaustion, desisted.

And then took it up again, two decades later.

In 1999, I stood on the sidewalk in Waterloo, watching the marchers make their way toward the domed building in the center of the plaza.  Smothering silence hovered above the mournful refrain of the four-piece brass band, pressing down on it, like darkness on a flickering candle.

A thought came to me:  "One could stand like this forever."
He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come. -- Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front

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