Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day & Harry Patch

The calendar has turned once again to Veterans' Day, the day on which we honor all of the US military veterans. While ever mindful of their service and sacrifice in making our nation what it is today, I think we Americans can sometimes lose sight of the larger significance of why this day falls on November 11.

For the rest of the world, especially Europe, November 11 is Armistice Day, the commemoration of that day in 1918 when the Allied Powers and the Central Powers ended hostilities with the pre-dawn signing of an accord in a railway car in the Compi├Ęgne Forest in France. The Armistice with Germany signaled the end of the fighting of World War I, a war which claimed the lives of nearly 18 million people, wounded millions more, and forever changed the face of Europe. It has various incarnations among the European countries -- it's Remembrance Day, for example, in the UK -- but is celebrated everywhere with a feeling of great gratitude and deep sadness.

This past July, the last British veteran of World War I died at the age of 111. Harry Patch, "the Last Fightin' Tommy," refused to speak about the war for some 80 years, until 1998 when the number of living WWI veterans began to dwindle quickly and he was approached by the BBC. His memories of the war are poignant and terrible, and he remained a committed anti-war advocate until his death. In July 2007, he visited Flanders to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, in which he fought. While there, he took the time to meet a German veteran of the battle, to pray at the tombs of fallen comrades, and to remark, "War is the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings. It isn't worth one life."

A few months ago I came across the following video in honor of Harry Patch and the men that fought with him on the Western Front. I was deeply touched, both by the images and by the music. The latter is "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)" by Radiohead, a personal favorite of mine, and the lyrics are words spoken by Patch in an interview in 2005. A word of warning: the video contains some actual World War I footage, which might be disturbing for some. However, for me, it is that footage that is most poignant. For those who wish to explore further, there are several other moving tributes to Harry Patch and his comrades on YouTube which I'd encourage you to check out.

In tribute to all of our Armed Forces veterans who were willing to pay the ultimate price in service and patriotism, and in remembrance of all those who indeed did so, Happy Veterans' Day. Thank you.