Called Remembrance Day in the UK and Veterans Day here, today is a day to honor those who died in WWI and, in the US, all those who served (within the US, it has become a day to honor veterans of all our wars). Generations of men and women were lost. Even more came home destroyed. WWI utterly transformed our world and we are the children of that devastation.
There are no veterans alive anymore from WWI (or very, very, very few). Each year there are fewer and fewer veterans of WWII alive. We’ve never paid heed to our veterans from Vietnam, and Korea is all but forgotten. Then there are our more recent wars. It is our duty and obligation to speak for our dead, our honor and privilege to listen to our living. We can, at the very least, give them one day, if nothing else.
Today, I remember particularly my cousin Wesley Heffner. He was part of Pershing’s Expeditionary Force, part of the first American forces to go to Europe in WWI. He was eighteen when he enlisted and never returned home. He died from wounds taken on a bloody field in France. He never made it to twenty. He enlisted out of a deep sense of patriotism and desire to do good in the world.
This is perhaps the only extant photo of Wesley. I’ve visited his grave, in a cemetery where I”m related to at least 98% of the dead lying there, and I’ve left offerings. I wonder what the world of our family would have been like had he returned, had he lived. With each person dead, a whole universe was obliterated, and the generations they would have touched. The least we can do is to remember them.
Today is also the birthday of my favorite WWII general, George S. Patton. He fought in WWI. He designed a sword, nearly medaled in the Olympics (and would have by modern scoring rubrics), was a brilliant tank tactician, and he saved the world. He was largely responsible for Allied Victory during the Battle of the Bulge (Patton and this Third Army).
So hail them. Pour out offerings. Visit their graves. Take your living veterans out to lunch. Remember them and their sacrifices throughout the year. Look for opportunities to honor them. We have built our world on their blood, bone, and suffering.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4)
Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(15)
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918
Notes on Dulce et Decorum Est
1. DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.
2. Flares – rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)
3. Distant rest – a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer
4. Hoots – the noise made by the shells rushing through the air
5. Outstripped – outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle
6. Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells
7. Gas! – poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8. Helmets – the early name for gas masks
9. Lime – a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue
10. Panes – the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks
11. Guttering – Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling
12. Cud – normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew usually green and bubbling. Here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth
13. High zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea
14. ardent – keen
15. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – see note 1 above.
These notes are taken from the book, Out in the Dark, Poetry of the First World War, where other war poems that need special explanations are similarly annotated. The ideal book for students getting to grips with the poetry of the First World War.
Taken from this site.
One of the things that I’ve been noticing this year is an increased awareness of the role the medical corps played in military life and combat. I’ve seen a lot more recognition of nurses and doctors this year in remembrance pieces than at any other time and I think that is good and necessary. When I honor my military dead, I try to honor those doctors and nurses and other medical people who served too. They all too often get forgotten and they shouldn’t be.(1)
One group of veterans that often get completely forgotten in WWI history is African American (or other nationality) nurses. I will admit to never having really thought about this myself (and I should have. I typically parse out military groups like the Tuskeegee Airmen in my veneration, for special recognition, because of how hard they had to fight just to be permitted to fight!); then I started seeing this movie coming up on my amazon and Netflix suggestions feed: “Searching for Augusta: the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne” about a Belgian, bi-racial nurse during WWII, and I thought: why the hell are we forgetting these women?(2) It occurs to me this happens to female military veterans in general…even now.
I don’t think that those of us who honor the military dead necessarily consciously think to include medical personnel, yet they are veterans too, every bit as much as non-medical personnel and they are the ones working on or near the front lines in many cases, to get our soldiers home, and they suffer every bit as much as any other soldier. They should be remembered too. They should be honored.
Here are a few good articles:
Here are a couple of places that I often donate to, often as an offering to Asklepios or other Healing Deities (like Eir or Hygeia) that I honor, or sometimes for the military medical dead in general:
And here is a whole list of military charities, most of them in some way connected to medical care.
Here is the documentary I noted above — definitely worth the watch!
- Nurses especially take the brunt of this when they showed every bit as much valor as the men (and sometimes women – there were always women who fought one way or another, even if they had to disguise themselves to do so) who fought. They saw daily the results of combat and in many cases, like Vietnam, nurses were damn near on the front lines unarmed. In Vietnam, my understanding is that they weren’t issued weapons of any sort and it is not unknown for medical encampments to be targeted.
- I see it happening in my first career field too, ballet. There were African American ballet dancers with Balanchine’s first company for instance, and one of them, Raven Wilkenson was truly extraordinary. They too often get erased from ballet history which leads to the bullshit that I have heard often in my career “well, no one will want to watch a [black, Asian, etc.] Swan in Swan Lake,” or “ballet doesn’t really want [insert minority of choice] dancers” and it’s utter bullshit. Tell it to Misty Copeland, Maria Tallchief, Jose Manuel Carreno, Carlos Acosta, Yuan Yuan Tan, Evelyn Cisneros, and Shiori Kase to note a few. Talent is talent. Period. This of course has nothing to do with WWI or WWII history or the military dead, but I’ve been thinking about this recently and the erasure really pisses me off. When I was training as a dancer one of the most incredibly gifted women I had the privilege of working with was an African American girl (We were young when we trained together in the first company with which I worked). Even then, I occasionally overheard the parents of other dancers saying things like “she’s the best dancer there” – she really was. Claire, to this day I envy your extensions! – “ but don’t you think it would look strange to have a black ballerina?” No, bitch, I don’t. STFU. It’s called ‘acting’ and ‘performance’ for a reason and the only prerequisite is talent. Fortunately, our director wasn’t amongst those who thought in this backward way, but I wonder at how many people were encouraged out of the field (and art and music too) by such nonsense, how much talent and genius and artistry we’ve lost because of our stupidity.
(apologies for any typos. I have a bitter migraine right now. I’m sitting here waiting for the migraine meds to kick in…)
(While I can’t find a definitive source for this image, I see it listed repeatedly as combat nurse Valya Gribkova retrieving a wounded soldier from the battlefield, WWII)
In Flanders Fields
by Major John McCrae, MD
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.
I’ve been consistently impressed with the work of the British Legion, both in furthering remembrance of those who died in WWI and in providing for current veterans. One of the ongoing projects they have is “Every One Remembered,” which allows contributors to learn about a particular soldier, nurse, or other combatant from WWI, contribute to various programs, and set up digital memorials. I get lost in this site way too often and way too much, but if you’re wondering where to start in honoring the military dead, I think this is a good place to go. Here is the link to that site and here is the link to their poppy shop.
I have heard Pagans say “that which is remembered lives” and there is truth in this. We should carry our dead with us, tell their stories, learn from them. WWI has passed out of living memory (in that we have almost no one who lived through it or fought in it currently alive) and WWII will, within a few years, a decade at most likewise no longer rest in living memory. I think this is a very dangerous place for us to be. I think we need to carry the weight of that remembrance, to carry the grief, the horror, the hope, the humility of two wars that effectively destroyed our world. It’s dangerous to forget, a grace and protection to remember.
This is an excellent and entertaining series about WWI. November 11, Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day was instituted originally to honor those who served in WWI. This war changed the face of our world. It was a Ragnarok of sorts. Now, it’s pretty much no longer in living memory (that is, there are no more, or very few WWI veterans still a live. There are few people who lived through that war even as civilians still alive). WWII is also rapidly moving out of living memory with our veterans dying off and I think this is a very dangerous point at which to be. We need to remember these wars and the devastation they caused. The world as it was before them ceased to exist. We have been shaped by that devastation and not, I think for the better.
Anyway, this is a good series on the origins of WWI. All the parts can be accessed on youtube. Check it out.
This gets me every single time (despite inaccuracies — civilians wouldn’t salute for instance), every single time.
November is fast approaching and every year I spend this month specifically honoring the military dead. Being the daughter and granddaughter of Veterans, and having many, many soldiers in my line each generation as far back as I can count, I generally begin with my own personal dead and branch out from there. One of the particular groups of dead that I honor regularly is the military dead and in many ways, this is their month.
Why is it so? Partly because we’re going into the dark of winter, the season of Yule, the time when the Wild Hunt rides with Odin – God of war and warriors – at its head and partly because we celebrate Veterans (or if you’re in the UK Armistice or Remembrance) Day on November 11.(1) Originally marking the end of WWI, it very quickly became a day in the US to honor military veterans of every stripe.(2)
WWI, the Great War, the “War to End All Wars” (though now we know it so very much wasn’t) was the war that ended the world. It destroyed whatever naiveté and innocence humanity might have had left, radically and viciously destroyed the overarching structure of the pre-war world (which in turn paved the way for the depredations of communism, Nazism, and the most soulless aspects of modernity), and paved the way for WWII.(3) It destroyed a generation, leveled it, rendered and decimated its ranks of young men. Even those who came back were often broken beyond repair. It was a Ragnarok for the generation that survived it.
Each November, every day of the month, I post something relevant to honoring our military dead. This month, I would like to encourage you to also post (here or on your own blogs) stories of the veterans in your family. Tell me about your military dead, share their memories if you have been entrusted with them (it is a great gift to be so), share pictures and prayers. Each and every one of us here has soldiers and warriors in their line. We have those men and sometimes women who either through choice or through desperation took up arms to defend their traditions, families, communities, and homes. We are here because they made brutally hard decisions. We are here because they did this knowing they might die and that even if they didn’t die, they’d never, ever be quite the same again. We are here because some of our ancestors walked into hell for us. It is worth remembering, worth telling their stories, worth reminding ourselves what valor is and what sacrifice looks like. It’s worth reminding ourselves so we don’t continue throwing way our men and women pointlessly. It’s worth remembering so that we have the opportunity to wake ourselves up out of our apathetic stupor and gather into the halls of heart and memory these men and women who gave so much for those they would never see and never know, who mostly just wanted to get home to their families, and who so often did not do that.
Honoring the military dead, or any of our dead for that matter, is welcoming them again into the community of living memory. It is restoring them to life and restoring us as well. It renews, again and again – every time we pour out an offering, chant a prayer, or call their names with reverence—that vital, visceral connection with those who have preceded us. It restores that ancient contract. It renews the best part of our humanity.
So this November, as I begin this month of remembrance, please share the stories of your military dead too, that more may know them, honor them, and remember.
- To be totally accurate, Memorial Day in May is the day when we in the US honor those who have died in our wars. Veterans Day is traditionally when we honor those living who have made it home. That being said, November is a powerful month for the military dead so I try to balance remembrance of those long past with active work for those living.
- Instituted by Woodrow Wilson in 1919 as a federal holiday, I’m just waiting for social justice agitators to take a run at it, Wilson as with every other historical figure, being problematic in their rather narrow and historically anachronistic world. I’m no fan of Wilson either, truth be told, but this was one good thing that he did. In the UK, I believe the focus is still very much on remembering those who died in WWI and the devastation of that terrible War. (UK friends, please correct me if I’m wrong!).
- So much so, that I’m often tempted to consider WWII a continuation of WWI rather than a separate war.
So…Antifa garbage is now targeting the military dead. There are apparently plans for burning flags at Gettysburg on July 1 and pissing on Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
Exactly what is wrong with us when we think it ok to demean, pollute, and desecrate the resting places and memorials to our dead? We are a civilization that deserves to fall.
As my friend T. said recently, “These people were someone’s brother, someone’s father, and someone’s son. Their children and their mothers cried over those graves. Those children grew up fatherless because they fought for this country. Would you piss on their sorrow and the orphans that grew up without them?”
Don’t dishonor the dead used to be a universal tenet of healthy, functioning people. Obviously, not anymore.