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A Century After the Great War

Veterans Day, commemorated each year on Nov. 11, is the Day of the Armistice that put an end to the Great War a century ago this week. We often forget that World War II changed the name of the Great War into World War I. In that name – Great War – there was an implicit hope: that the horrors visited upon the world between 1914 and 1918 would never return. That hope was obliterated 21 years later, when Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland in September of 1939.

The World of Yesterday, the autobiography of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (Vienna, 1881 – Rio de Janeiro, 1942) is a book-long reflection on the meaning of the Great War. Before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28,1914, Zweig said, “There was as little belief in the possibility of such barbaric declines as wars between the peoples of Europe as there was in witches and ghosts.”

The carnage of the Great War changed that perception forever. He wrote these words during World War II, while living as an exile: “We of the new generation,” Zweig said, “are markedly more skeptical about the moral improvement of mankind. We had have to accustom ourselves gradually to living without the ground beneath our feet, without justice, without freedom, without security.”

Baby Boomers in the United States understand what Zweig describes. After the horrors of the Vietnam War, many thought that we were indeed seeing “the end of history” at the end of the Cold War as political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in his 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man.” The long debate that had caused all the wars of the last two centuries was over, he thought.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proved him tragically wrong. We live sometimes with the same fears Zweig described in his autobiography.

Each Veterans Day, we honor the soldiers that put their lives on the line so we could keep living with “the ground beneath our feet.” Memorial Day is dedicated to remember those who lost their lives fighting for our country. On Veterans Day, we honor those who came back from the battlefields.

We should honor veterans because they answered a call to go to war, to be ready to kill and die for their country.

They came back from the battlefields to live the rest of their lives with the physical, emotional and moral scars the dirty business of war usually inflicts upon soldiers.

They risked not just their lives, but also their sanity and their moral compass when they went to war. There is hardly a more consequential decision for any person – especially for a Christian – than going to war. We should be grateful to the veterans who went through those tribulations.

We also owe our veterans the support and services they might need after their traumatic experiences. But we need to defend in our everyday lives – so far from the battlefield – the notions of justice, freedom and security for which they sacrificed so much.

And we need to pray and work for peace so our children don’t have to pay the terrible price that war imposes upon those who answer the call.

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