100 Years of Armistice Day

There was a curiously crude World War I monument in the middle of the oldest intersection in my town, a suburb of Trenton, when I was a kid – my first encounter with World War I.

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The Hamilton Square monument, before my time.

At the corner of Nottingham Way and Mercer Street, what had been a little farming town with a factory, a few churches and a greater Trenton street car line in 1918, was already surrounded by aluminum-sided Cape Cod houses by the 1970s, when the local suburban housing boom went into overdrive, but that squat block of cement and ill-fitting stones was still there slowing traffic down.

It honored “the citizens of this vicinity who served our country in the Great War of 1914-1918.” Sometime in the ’80s it was moved to the corner lot, which the town turned into a mini-park that no one ever visits.

It was and is, all too fitting. A war so weird we didn’t have a definitive name for it. A nebulous scope (“this vicinity”?) and an oddly misleading timeline (1914-1918) for a country that couldn’t take a side till 1916. A war that those of us who grew up on World War II and the Cold War could never get our heads around: it had none of the moral certainty, and none of the heroism. A war that we remembered mostly for the great generation of alcoholic writers who were scarred by it.

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A few years ago a friend loaned me Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, which I promptly put on a shelf for a year, then picked up one night and couldn’t put down. Like me, Dyer’s encounter with World War I was through memorials.

Like the World War I vets marching down Nottingham Way on the Memorial Day parades of the 1970s, everything about it seemed old, old, old, even 40 years ago.

Yesterday my friend Rick Carney wrote about “the greatest and most powerful anti-war films ever made.” Here are his  “5 absolute must see films in this category”:

“J’Accuse”- Abel Gance
“Westfront 1918”- GW Pabst
“All Quiet on the Western Front”- Lewis Milestone
“Paths of Glory”- Stanley Kubrick
And in my opinion the greatest (and most humane) of them all, Jean Renoir’s, “La Grande Illusion.”

November 11 goes by the name “Armistice Day” or “Remembrance Day” in other countries – countries that suffered a lot worse than ours did. To us, “Veterans Day” is a time to thank the vets. This year the Left is using it to try shaming Trump; every year the Right uses it to try shaming anyone who ever questioned any war.

How often I’ve wished that I lived in a time and place when respecting the dead of past wars was not purposefully confused with supporting the possible wars of today. In any case without question the journey of remembering, to appreciate the scope of what happened and how it changed people at the time – and how we understand it through the ways others chose to remember it – makes you a more sensitive person.

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