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Thoughts on Veterans Day

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An ocean liner was sunk by a German submarine off Nantucket. This was in the fall of 1916. The United States would not even be a combatant in World War I for eight more months.

Asked later why he did not take a route through the shoals, a route that might have shielded him from the attack, the ship’s captain said the risk of being sunk by the U-boat was less than the risk of wrecking his ship on the shoals. By the time that German submarine had finished poaching in the waters some 40 miles south of here, it had sunk six ships. Twenty-eight survivors were taken to Nantucket for treatment.

One report said the Germans allowed crews to get into the lifeboats and begin rowing for the Nantucket Lightship before they began firing on the ships.

I read someplace recently that World War I is a very good lens to look at the world since then, especially the way decisions were made defining the map of the Middle East that still echo today. A European thought process for a Middle Eastern world.

Veterans Day, of course, began as Armistice Day, and commemorated the dead who littered the battlefields of what was called The Great War.

An islander named Charles Chadwick fought in that war. Outside the French town of Verdun he found himself caught on open ground in the middle of a German artillery barrage. When he came back home, he was very forthcoming in telling his story to the newspaper.

“I was standing by a ledge at about 20 minutes to 11 o’clock, wondering had I better make my way along, and a shell burst near by me and I knew no more. I recall opening my eyes once or twice and seeing stars overhead, but the day and night must have passed before the stretcher-bearers found me.

I was sent to the hospital in Bordeaux, and for two days and two nights I could not close my eyes. I imagined I was going through all sorts of things – falling from high buildings, etc. I would lie down and cry for hours, for what I do not know. I was in the hospital when the armistice was signed.”

Mrs. Morris L. Parrish spent summers living on Cliff Road, but spent parts of 1917 and 1918 as a nurse working in a field hospital in France. Her tour began in high spirits. In a letter home she described the thrill of witnessing an aerial battle between two biplanes. On April 20, 1918, she wrote a much different letter drenched in the horrors of war.

“Is it really possible that somewhere there is laughter and happiness? Do you know that the dead are stacked up in the hills, and somewhere in that muddle of legs, arms, and heads is perhaps your dear one? It is all true.”

It is a letter from someone who has looked in the face of horror in a way that no military medals (she was awarded the French Legion of Honor) can make better.

As I was looking up those passages, a friend of mine phoned. When he heard what I was doing, he remembered the Thanksgiving Day in 1967 when his aunt found out that her son was not coming home from Vietnam.

Another Vietnam veteran once allowed me to point a camera at him, while he remembered the war. At one point he told a story about a kid who was killed next to him during a firefight. That is what he called him as he told the story, the kid. As he was finishing the story he choked up, struck by the fact that the kid would be an old man in his 60s today.

A few weeks ago I ran into a guy I worked with a couple of years ago building houses. When we worked together his son had just completed Marine Corps training and was heading to Iraq. There was good news now. The kid had made it home finally and was out of the Marines. His father could not stop smiling about it.

Wars are begun by nations, but in the end wars are frighteningly personal. And so on Veterans Day I read about the geopolitical consequences of World War I, but I thought about the everyday consequences of any war and about another president who thinks he has the answer. I wondered if there even is an answer.
– John Stanton is a writer and filmmaker living on Nantucket.

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