The Weary Old Heroes of a Forgotten War

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, a bugler sounded “Taps” in the vast expanse of Grand Central Terminal. The mournful notes drew a crowd of slightly puzzled passers-by. The power was out on the Lexington Avenue line, and fuming subway riders who were looking at their watches and cursing suddenly slowed down, and a few stopped. Did they know why a few men in uniform were gathered in this unlikely spot at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month?

One surely did: A balding man who looked to be in his late 50’s, with a jaw line that defied time and gravity, stood at attention near the bugler. He was wearing a camouflage jacket with two rows of battle ribbons and a U.S. flag pin, the sort of thing Richard Nixon used to wear on his lapel when he was sending secret signals to the silent majority.

When the bugler’s lament was over, banshees in plaid skirts played “Amazing Grace” on their bagpipes. Then everybody went home.

A few blocks to the west, at the corner of West 39th Street and Fifth Avenue, cars were a little more entangled than usual, but otherwise there were few indications of anything out of the ordinary. The fake holly and holiday lights were in place outside Lord & Taylor, its windows promising the imminent arrival of a new display. A cabby who didn’t like the pace of southbound traffic yelled to a cop on the corner. “What’s with the traffic?” he said.

“The parade,” the cop said.

“What parade?”

“Veterans Day. Don’t worry. It’s over.”

A few thousand men and women, some of them looking fragile in the chilly shade, had stepped off for the annual Veterans Day parade not 90 minutes before, on the anniversary of the day the guns fell silent on the Western Front in 1918. But now there was no sign of them except for slow traffic on Fifth Avenue.

There’s a lovely antiwar ballad from Australia called “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and I found myself humming it as I wandered around midtown on Veterans Day. It’s about a wide-eyed young Aussie who went off to the world war in 1915 amid great fanfare–the band played “Waltzing Matilda”–and was sent to the mass grave of Gallipoli. “A big Turkish shell knocked [his] arse over head,” and when he awoke in his hospital bed, he found “there were worse things than dyin’.” With both legs gone, he was left to live his life contemplating war’s myths of glory. And every April, his comrades–”the weary old heroes of a forgotten war”–gathered to celebrate Anzac Day, Australia’s answer to Veterans Day.

And the young people ask:

What are they marching for?

And I ask myself the same question.

It is a shame that we choose Nov. 11 to honor the nation’s veterans, because, as the English, French, Germans, Russians and Aussies know, it is not a date fit for celebration. It ought to be a day of quiet and even bitter reflection, because never in the field of human conflict have so many graves been dug for so pointless a cause. The men who sent the Aussies to Gallipoli, the English to the Somme, the Germans to Belgium and the Russians anywhere did so with no clear purpose other than some misguided notion of imperial honor. Nov. 11 will be remembered in history not as a day of glory, but as the day a semblance of sanity returned to the world’s capitals.

Because we are a nation of non-veterans (as we certainly were not 30 years ago, when the World War II vets were in their 40’s and early 50’s), many of us have come to regard old soldiers as somehow more authentic, more courageous, even more American, than the rest of us. That’s why so many middle-aged boomers in the press are fascinated by John McCain, a combat veteran and a prisoner of war. We have come to expect political leaders to have some military experience–every Presidential election since 1952 has featured somebody who wore a uniform in World War II. That is, until this year.

But those who were left standing on the battlefield on Nov. 11, 1918, are gone save for a very few. The old soldiers of World War II and Korea are starting to fade away, while Vietnam veterans are starting to plan their retirement and even Persian Gulf veterans are in early middle age.

What we ought to remember on days like Nov. 11 is that while the old soldiers indeed were brave, combat is hardly the only honorable and indeed courageous way of serving one’s country. The veterans deserve our thanks, but surely not our envy. And, as the song says:

Year after year, their numbers get fewer

Some day no one will march there at all.

What will we do then?