100 years ago, celebratory church bells took the place of bombardments, and men, who had made homes deep beneath the earth, crawled their way out of the mud. 100 years ago yesterday – November 11th, 1918 – the world chose peace. The previous four years had seen some of the most horrific combat in history. We killed each other with incredible efficiency, scarring the European landscape and searing our minds with images of the dead and war-worn.
The suffering and carnage was so intense that this war was dubbed the War to End all Wars. But, as we all know, the peace was fleeting, and you will learn tomorrow just how insatiable our appetite for human suffering truly is. Since those battles in Verdun and Belleau Wood, we’ve been no stranger to conflict.
Military historian John Keegan’s The Face of Battle covers a 500-year period of conflict, profiling the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. As Keegan notes, our weapons and tactics for fighting each battle have changed, but the experience of the warfighter has remained the same. That longbowman releasing an arrow during Agincourt is in many ways the same soldier racing across no-man’s land at the Somme or the young Marine laying suppressive fire in Kandahar. War, for all of its technological improvements, still wears a human face.
With recent and ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve frequently seen this human face come across our TV screens and newsfeeds. It takes the form of the dutiful warfighter or the patriotic veteran, the homeless veteran, the traumatized veteran, or the masses of veterans supposedly shamed at the sight of a kneeling football player. The midterm election cycle certainly saw no shortage of this. Even this past week, the Thousand Oaks, California shooter reprised the role of the war-crazed veteran, giving us some sort of all-too-simple explanation for what may have motivated such a tragic and terrible act.
But, between deployment homecoming videos on Facebook and political rallies that celebrate service and sacrifice, do we truly know our veterans? Can we distill the experience of war and return from war down to a Mark Wahlberg film and a half-time show? I could easily stand before you for the rest of chapel and speak on my experience as a soldier in Afghanistan and veteran transitioning to civilian life, but I’m just one perspective. To understand the veteran experience, we need to go beyond the single story.
What we have for you this morning are the voices of those who have sat in these very seats and gone on to serve. Our hope is that their Holderness connection brings their experience closer to us, makes their stories more real. These alumni and friends are answering your questions in a video put together by Shawn Kim '20. And, to connect us to the centennial of World War One, a few of your peers will recite some poetry written in those muddy trenches.
I don’t ask that you become advocates for veterans after this chapel. Once you leave this space, an untold number of causes will fight for your attention. Instead, I ask that you be present in this moment and truly listen to the experiences of those who once called this campus home.
Poems recited by:
Abby Viera '20 - In Times of Peace, John Agard (text
Mathieu Butchma '19 - Dreamers, Sigfried Sassoon (text
Thalia Anastos '19- Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen (text
'20- Suicide in the Trenches, Sigfried Sassoon (text