Tuesday, November 11, 2014

For Veterans Day, Read about a Soldier

Mary L. Dudziak

November 11, or Veterans Day, was once called Armistice Day, the official ending of World War I. Congress created the official national holiday in 1926, noting that "it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations." Peace would be fleeting, however, and the United States would have many more veterans to honor. Along the way, November 11 became a day to honor all veterans. In the 21st century, the holiday receives more notice than a few decades ago, even though fewer American families participate in war service. As the work of war becomes an abstraction for most of us, the earlier hope for peace has been replaced by public celebrations of militarism.

Soldiers perform labor that the nation desires, but that most Americans never contemplate doing themselves. Americans support war without engaging its costs, or even paying close attention to the work soldiers do. To mark Veterans Day, we can get beyond shallow accolades and actually read about it. My choice this November is the extraordinary memoir of Bruce Wright, "World War I as I Saw It: The Memoir of an African American Soldier," edited by his grandchildren and published in the Massachusetts Historical Review. (It is behind a paywall, but perhaps the $10 it may cost you on JSTOR can be your Veterans Day contribution to his memory.)

The work of war, at the ground level, involves death and dying. This experience was widely shared during the Civil War, as Drew Gilpin Faust has shown, but is attenuated in the long U.S. history of distant war. Here's a snippet of Wright's own experience:
Finally the day broke and everyone there welcomed the dawn of that first day in the Argonne forest and we got our very first look onto "No Mans Land" that we had heard & read so much about. Masses of barbed wire, skeletons of men, tin cans, rotted clothes and an awful smell greeted our eyes & noses....It was raining but not hard and some of us I guess would be almost tempted to pray for a quick death to end it all.... 
At 11 A.M. in Broad daylight the command came "Over Boys Over" and that first wave made up of colored boys, with bayonets fixed dashed through no mans land in a perfect formation: It was 3 or 4 minutes before the buglers sounded the call to start firing. The [Germans] leaped out of their 1st trench and started falling back, so after they abandoned that first trench we fell in it head first but no sooner had we got to our feet the word came like lightning. "Up Boys and at 'em." Then that was the [beginning] of the most fierce struggle that I ever was in.
The rest is here. 

Cross-posted from War Time

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