As any school child can tell you, 100 years ago today, at 11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 an eerie silence settled in over the Western Front. Sniper fire at 10:59am was an act of war. At 11:00am it was murder.
The Great War, which had begun four years earlier, after the Arch Duke of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, was over.
Europe was in shambles. Some 10 million belligerents on both sides had been lost along with 20 million others, dead from disease, hunger and the general vicissitudes of war. Some six million were left maimed and crippled.
The Armistice renounced the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and was signed by all the belligerents (save the good ‘ol US of A) at the Palace of Versailles. It had been a scant 47 years earlier (1871, the end of the Franco-Prussian War) that William I had allowed himself to be crowned Emperor of Germany in the Hallowed Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The insult had not been lost on the French. They demanded onerous reparations which inevitably lead to the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of an Austrian Artist and his Brown Shirted Buddies. But you know all that.
The most decorated soldier of World War I, Sergeant York, was often asked, “What did it get you?”
President Roosevelt tried to answer the question posed to Sargent York, On November 11th 1941, less than a month before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“We know that these men died to save their country from a terrible danger of that day. We know, because we face that danger once again this day.
“What did it get you?” People who asked that question of Sergeant York and his comrades forgot the one essential fact which every man who looks can see today. They forgot that the danger which threatened this country in 1917 was real–and that the sacrifice of those who died averted that danger. Because the danger was overcome they were able UNABLE to remember that the danger had been present.
Because our armies were victorious they demanded why our armies had fought. Because our freedom was secure they took the security of our freedom FOR GRANTED and asked why those who died to save it should have died at al. If our armies of 1917 and 1918 had lost, there would not have been a man or woman in America who would have wondered why the war was fought.
The reasons would have faced us everywhere. We would have known why liberty is worth defending as those alone whose liberty is LOST can know it. We would have known why tyranny is worth defeating as only those whom tyrants rule can know. The men of France, prisoners in their cities, victims of searches and seizures without law, hostages for the safety of their masters’ lives, robbed of their harvests, murdered in their prisons–the men of France would know the answer to that question.
They know now what a former victory of freedom against tyranny was worth. We know also what obligation and duty their sacrifice imposes upon us. They did not die to make the world safe for decency and self-respect for five years or ten or maybe twenty. They died to make it safe. And if, by some fault of ours who lived beyond the war, its safety has again been threatened then the obligation and the duty are ours.
It is in our charge now, as it was America’s charge after the Civil War, to see to it “That these dead shall not have died in vain”.
Sergeant York spoke thus of the cynics and doubters: “The thing they forget is that liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once and stop. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and keep fighting eternally to hold them.”
This duty we owe, not to ourselves alone, but to the many dead who died to gain our freedom for us–to make the world a place where freedom can live and grow into the ages.
As these words are being written, young Americans are battling the Taliban in Afghanistan and Isis in Iraq.
Once again we are at war. Once again tin horn tyrants like (the now deceased) Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri would impose their will on others as Saddam did in Iraq and Isis did in the Levant. Given the chance they would harm us. Given the opportunity, they will.
Their deaths have not ended the evil they stand for and perpetuated.
Elections (however flawed) have been held in Iraq and in Afghanistan. All because young American, Iraqis, and Afghanis were willing to die, that others might live free.
One can’t help but be humbled. What kind of parents raised those kids?
And a free election was just held here, in these United States–and the people have spoken.
War is Hell. But we breath free today, solely at the pleasure of the Sergeant York’s of yore. If we breathe free tomorrow, it will because some youngsters are willing to die in Afghanistan, Iraq and yes, Syria, today.
The Kaiser, Tojo, Hitler, Saddam–they were all brought down by humble country boys like Alvin York and Audie Murphy.
The Taliban’s future (as well as Isis and other terrorists groups) will be no different. That’s why they didn’t care if it were Kerry or Bush or Obama or McCain, Romney, Trump or Clinton.
What they fear most, is young boys who know “What it got you?”
It is they who have given us freedom and the world as we know it. We are in their debt.