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11.12.09

Lessons from Another War

Christopher Buckley, in London as Britain marks Armistice Day, reports on how the allies' Afghanistan conundrum looks under the long shadow of World War I.

I arrived in London a bit after noon, having gotten off the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton a few hours earlier, so I had missed the two-minute moment of silence. On the way in, I almost expected the cars on the M3 motorway to pull over at 11 o’clock. Maybe they were all too busy texting.

But in Trafalgar Square and at Whitehall and Westminster and St. Paul’s, everything did come to a stop at eleven. The British observe this sacred ritual every November 11, commemorating the armistice that began on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

WWI was fought on terrain no larger that Manhattan’s Central Park, over the period of about ten months, at a cost of 700,000 casualties. And for—what?

Walking in the rain toward the cenotaph, I observed that about every other person wore a red paper poppy in the lapel. As you probably already know, the symbol derives from a poem written by a Canadian military doctor, John McCrae, in 1915. The occasion was the funeral service for a friend who’d been killed by an exploding shell. The chaplain was unavailable, so McCrae scribbled a few lines, which began,

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.

It ends, two stanzas later:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I tried, as I made my way, to think of a comparable American personal gesture of remembrance of our own war dead on Memorial Day. I couldn’t, other than the thousands of little American flags that sprout, as if organically, from the graves of veterans each Memorial Day.

The Great War ended 91 years ago, but when I reached the Cenotaph, with its problematic inscription—“The Glorious Dead”—the roadway around it was thickly blanketed with wreathes of paper poppies, most of them personally inscribed. There are also abundant tiny wooden crucifixes, with names written on them in ink runny from the rain. It wasn’t anything to match the floral extravagance outside Diana’s residence in 1997, but as a commemoration of a war nearly one century old, it was impressive. I was wearing a hat against the rain, and it seemed only right to remove it, and stand for a delayed two minutes, in awed and grateful remembrance.

I say “problematic” above, only there was so little glory in those awful deaths, celebrated richly in war literature, most memorably in the poetry that sprang from the trenches. In a brilliant and moving piece by Robert Fisk in The Independent titled “Language of the Lost,” he quotes his own father, a veteran of the war, calling it all “just one great waste.” One year into the war, the Kaiser Wilhelm was asked by someone what the war was about; he allegedly responded, “I wish to God I knew.”

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I met up for lunch with my old friend Sir Alistair Horne, one of England’s pre-eminent military historians. Alistair first came into fame with his book about the Battle of Verdun, The Price of Glory. (That word again.) I did a paper on it in sixth grade, and remember still, the arresting statistic: that it was fought on terrain no larger that Manhattan’s Central Park, over the period of about ten months, at a cost of 700,000 casualties. And for—what?

World War I, as Paul Fussell wrote in his masterful The Great War and Modern Memory, is the war that continues to define us. Germany was defeated, but then driven to humiliation and despair by the overly punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty. Out of that toxic soil rose Hitler, whose racial obsessions brought about the Holocaust and the subsequent Jewish diaspora and founding of Israel, a major determinant of American politics in the Middle East. So the bullet that Gavrilo Princip fired at old Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo (a redolent place-name) goes on echoing.

The front page of The Independent was not given over to Armistice Day, but to a sad and moving photograph of hearses bearing the bodies of six British soldiers slain in Afghanistan. Beneath the photo was the headline AFGHAN WAR IS BAD FOR SECURITY, VOTERS SAY. The gist being that 46 percent of the British electorate now believe that keeping British troops in the country that so frustrated and humbled Great Britain in the 19th century increases, rather than decreases, the threat of terrorism. (Twenty-one percent believe that it decreases terrorism.)

Elsewhere in the paper is the headline, DECISION DAY LOOMS FOR OBAMA’S TROOP DILEMMA, in which various White House spokespersons adamantly—almost vehemently—deny that the president has yet reached a decision as to further quag the United States in an unwinnable mire in a country where poppies also flourish. (My words, not theirs.) Finally, this just in from our British PM Gordon Brown’s desk. Mr. Brown seems to get so many things wrong these days that you actually feel sorry for the guy and want to insert the prefix “Poor” in front of “Gordon Brown.”

His latest kerfuffle has to do with a letter that he wrote, by hand, to the mother of a slain British soldier. Mr. Brown is nothing if not genuinely sympathetic. He’s written 200 of these letters, God bless him. The trouble is that he told the mother than he felt her pain, being himself the father of a child who died at the age of 10 days. The loss of a child is a tragedy whatever form it takes, but the mother in question did not, apparently, feel that the prime minister’s allusion was entirely condign.

Then there were the misspellings. He got the name of the woman’s son, uh, slightly wrong. He was “Jamie,” not “Janie.” And either the PM’s handwriting or spelling needs some attention, to judge from the words “cumfort” and “cuntry.”

When I typed that last word, my spell-check automatically corrected it to “country.” Oh well. As Ophelia says to Hamlet when he asks if he might rest his head upon her lap, “Think you not on country matters.”

Christopher Buckley's books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir. Buckley's Daily Beast column is the winner of an Online Journalism Award in the category of Online Commentary.