By Nick Gier
Their minds were numbed by the shock of peace.
—Colonel Thomas Gowenlock, U.S. intelligence officer
At 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent on the battlefields of Europe. Four million soldiers died, 6 million civilians were killed, and 21 million were wounded. Thousands of these lives would have been spared if the Allies had accepted Germany’s request to halt hostilities as soon as peace negotiations began on Nov. 8.
Instead, Marshall Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, found the “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” rhetorically irresistible. If Foch had agreed to an armistice on November 8, historian Joseph Persico estimates that “6,750 lives would have been spared and nearly 15,000 maimed, crippled, burned, blinded, and otherwise injured men would instead have gone home whole.”
Captain Harry S. Truman kept his artillery pieces firing until 11 a.m. precisely, because the Germans “should be given a ‘bayonet peace’ and made to pay for what they’ve done to France.” The all-black 366thregiment was ordered into battle—the last advance was at 10:30 AM against a German machine gun nest—and they lost 17 dead and 302 wounded. Some units kept firing after 11 a.m. —their officers citing revenge and using up ammunition as the main reasons.
It was said that this war was “the war to end all wars,” and people around the world were inspired by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” the fifth of which recognized the right of self-determination of all people, including those under colonial rule.
The Treaty of Versailles, however, rejected Wilson’s idealism and imposed humiliating conditions on Germany, which led to economic and political chaos and the rise of Hitler. The people of the Middle East were promised self-determination, but Britain and France broke a promise they made to T. H. Lawrence (the famed Lawrence of Arabia) and carved out, using artificial borders, their own spheres of domination.
France kept its colonies in Southeast Asia, inspiring the rise of the Vietnamese Communist Party and two disastrous wars. Britain also held on tight to India, the jewel in former Empress Victoria’s crown, preventing the possibility of a united South Asia, where Hindus and Muslims could have lived in peace rather than fighting four wars between a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan.
After 28 states had voted to celebrate their own Veteran’s Day, Congress, in a joint resolution on June 4, 1926, voted to set aside November 11 as a day to honor those who fought in “the most destructive and far reaching war in human annals.” Members of Congress also recognized the “resumption of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed.” They further encouraged all Americans to build “peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Veteran’s Day is, therefore, not only a time to honor those who have served, but it is also an opportunity for us to think about how we can bring about world peace. We should redouble our efforts to make sure that our military men and women never again have to make the ultimate sacrifice.
No president should send these good people to war unless we are directly attacked; or unless, in situations of no immediate threat, the issues are thoroughly debated and a consensus to intervene militarily is reached with as many major powers as possible.
We should support our troops no matter where they are sent, but there is no honor in having them fight battles that do not follow just war principles or violate international law.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines a legitimate war as “having just cause, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used.” Nations that go to war are also responsible under international law to protect the lives of noncombatants, use humane interrogation techniques, and provide shelter, clothing, food, and medical care for prisoners.
Our armed services contain some of the best trained and equipped men and women in the world. I’m confident they could successfully defend American against any attack on our borders, and I would drop everything and help them in any way possible. But sending our troops to the Middle East has created more terrorists than ever before. Remember that Osama bin Laden, previously a recipient of U. S. aid in Afghanistan, turned against us after we stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, his home country.
Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Email him at [email protected]
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