November 11, 2018
One hundred years ago today, we marked the end of the First World War. The Great War. “The War to end all wars.”
Except, of course it did not. It was, however, the war that changed all wars and that changed our world forever.
It saw a massive explosion of technology that redefined the nature of combat and warfare. At the start of the conflict, soldiers on all sides were largely issued soft hats — by the end, they would be wearing steel helmets. In the beginning, planes were typically used for reconnaissance. By the end, fighter planes and bombers were a vital part of military strategy. It was the war that brought us tanks, innovations in sea and airborne weapons, plastic surgery as we know it, and the horrors and hell of chemical warfare.
This eruption of technology also accounted for the destruction of human life on an unprecedented scale. On average, approximately 230 soldiers on all sides died per hour of fighting. Nearly an entire generation was wiped from the face of the earth.
Yet today, amidst the high-stakes drama that is our political world, it would be all too easy for this anniversary to slip by almost unnoticed. For many of us, it feels far removed from our world — black and white photos in a history book, a distant memory. But I believe it is vitally important that we remember, for at least two reasons.
First, we remember for them. We remember for the over four million American families who sent their sons and daughters to serve. We remember to honor the over 116,500 U.S. servicemembers who died from combat and disease. We honor the estimated 200,000 who were wounded. They left their homes and families behind — some for the first time — because they believed in something bigger than themselves. They didn’t lose their lives — they gave their lives, because they believed that their country and the ideals of liberty and justice for all were worth sacrificing for, and worth dying for. We remember for them.
We remember for the men and women for whom the war ended deep in a trench, or in the desolation of no man’s land, or in the darkness of a prison cell. They gave their lives before they got to enjoy the parades in the streets and shouts of joy of Armistice Day on November 11, 1918. Today, when bells are rung in bell towers across Europe as part of the world-wide commemoration of the centenary, the bells will ring for them. We are here today because of them.
But we also remember for us.
Looking back reminds us not only of what evil is capable of, but also what we are capable of. The men and women who drove the tanks, flew the planes, worked in the factories, and hid in the trenches were ordinary Americans. They were the people you see in the checkout line at the grocery store, the neighbors you wave to while you’re cutting the grass. Many were not soldiers to begin with, nor would ever have imagined themselves heroes — until extraordinary circumstances pulled them from their everyday lives and required extraordinary sacrifices and extraordinary courage.
Today, many Americans will never serve in the Armed Forces. Only 7 percent of U.S. adults are veterans, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, and the number of active duty Americans has gone down to less than 1 percent of U.S. citizens. Still, should history ever demand extraordinary things from us, our job is to ensure that we would be ready to rise to the challenge. We do that by living our lives each day with grit, integrity, character, and courage — even in the small things.
We remember so that we do not grow complacent in our fight for freedom and for peace. As long as evil exists, our nation must always be prepared to defend ourselves and our allies from those who want to destroy us and what we stand for. We will always need men and women who are willing to pick up a weapon and stand between evil and the rest of the world. So as we remember those who fought in World War I, we also pause to remember the veterans of every war since then. We honor those that are on the frontline right now — fighting for our freedom.
Today, the bells also ring for them. We are here today because of them.