I recently visited Bruges in Belgium, a small and charming city that is very close to the town of Ypres and Flanders Field, the site of the Western Front during The Great War. I wanted to see the sites as a way to participate in commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. I knew I’d see cemeteries and statues, but I had no idea how I’d feel as I spent the day with my tour guide, Philippe, and my companions for the day–four people from Ireland, two from Canada, and one from Italy. All of them had lost grandfathers during the war. My two grandfathers did not enlist, probably due to their ages. Still, as an American, I felt that it was important for me to witness the ground where so much sacrifice and destruction occurred over 100 years ago.
The truly awful fact is that The Great War, or World War I, still lives in Europe, especially in the small, quiet towns of France and Belgium.
The war lives in the unexploded shells that farmers find when they plow their fields.
The war lives in the sinkholes that trap people because they’ve built over an old trench. The war lives in the chemical weapons that are still lethal after 100 years.
The war lives in the Canadian, British, Australian, New Zealand, German, and Irish cemeteries that cover former battle fields.
The war lives in the red poppies that decorate the grave sites and fill the fields in the spring.
Poet and author Madeline Mysko used a piece from The Sun archives that declares Nov. 11, 1918 “the greatest day in the history of the world!” But the reporter wisely spells out the deeper meaning of victory for the readers:
“It was a victory not so much of material things: of ships and rifles, and cannon, and gas, and men’s lives, as it was a victory of the spirit, a spirit that even in the darkest of days did not acknowledge defeat, the spirit that never would admit that might was right or that brutality and savagery could triumph over humanity and kindliness and love and the decent things of life.”
In Europe, they call November 11th Armistice Day, literally a day to celebrate the cessation of force, stopping the use of weapons. We have sacrificed greatly in our many wars, but those wars do not live on our soil. I wonder if the destruction and pain of war, the futility of force to solve problems, would be more real for us as Americans if we found unexploded shells in our fields? If our children fell into sink holes when they played tag in the yard?
May we pause and reflect this Armistice Day.