The 100th Anniversary of the End of WWI

Today marks 100 years since the end of World War I, so this morning over coffee I reflected on what small connections I personally have to the great war and what books have educated me on it.

My maternal grandfather, Elmer Dalton Warren, was in the Great War. He was 82 years old when he died in 1973 and I was only 7, and so I don’t recall learning anything about his experiences during the war. My dad told me “Poppy” served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, assigned to a “submarine chaser.” My guess is Poppy spent his war years in the Atlantic, hunting German U-boats.

I also knew another gentleman, Sebastian Sanchez, who was like an uncle to me growing up, who’d served in WWI. I believe he served in the British Army, though I’m not sure. He died in the mid 1980s when I was around 16 years old. On his death bed he gave me his WWI rifle bayonet, which was really more like a small sword. I can remember asking him if he’d ever used it, though I can’t recall what he said in reply.

Educationally speaking, my views of WWI have mostly come from reading books like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, John Keegan’s history of The First World War, Robert Grave’s incredible memoir Good-bye to All That, and a vast trove of magazine articles and TV documentaries that I’ve read and watched over the years.

My views of WWI are basically summed up in John Keegan’s opening paragraph to his masterful work, The First World War:

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the cause of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.

And, of course, for me, no reflection on the First World War can leave out my reading of Alex Danchev’s incredibly well done biography of B.H. Lindell Hart. Lindell Hart was a British army infantry officer during the First World War, and learned firsthand the futility of WWI battlefield strategies. It was Lindell Hart’s strategic insights, formulated after WWI, that would, oddly enough, be quickly adopted by the German army and utilized to make quick work of the French and British armies on the battlefields of Europe during WWII.

One of the stories that’s stayed with me from reading Danchev’s biography of Lindall Hart, is the one about the 9th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Lindall Hart was an officer in the Battalion…one of the lucky ones to survive. There is no doubt that by eve of the Battle of the Somme, British officers and soldiers were well aware of the gruesome carnage and death that awaited those going “Over the top.” And yet, the futility and fear would not outweigh the sense of honor and duty in the face of it all by the officers of the 9th.

On the evening before the Battle, the officers of the 9th all met one last time before being deployed to the trenches the next morning. Most of them certainly knew or felt that many of their fellow officers wouldn’t survive the coming battle. The commanding officer of the Battalion, Lt. Colonel Lynch, was not popular with the officers because it was believed he’d shown favoritism with promotions. So there was some bad blood between the officers. And even though they were going into battle and there was a good chance this was the last time some of them would ever see each other again, honor and sincerity would not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Captain Haswell would find a way to preserve his personal integrity while summoning all to reflect on their shared duty—and fate—that lay ahead.

At about 6pm on June 28 all officers received a summons to go to Battalion HQ for a final drink before going into action. We assembled, glasses were put into our hands, drinks were passed round and we drank quietly to one another – everyone was naturally feeling strained. The Adjutant and Second-in-command were away on some course, so the Acting Adjutant, Keay, was in charge. Lynch came into the room and was given a glass. Keay went up to Haswell, the senior Captain, and said quietly to him,

‘I think you should propose the CO’s health!’

‘I’m damned if I will’, said Haswell ‘I don’t wish him good health and am not prepared to be insincere on this occasion.’

‘You must’, said Keay.

‘I won’t.’, said Haswell.

For a few moments they argued, and then Haswell stepped forward and raising his glass said:

‘Gentlemen, I give you the toast of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and in particular the 9 Battalion of the Regiment’ – a slight pause – ‘Gentleman, when the barrage lifts.

We emptied our glasses and were silent. Dramatically, Haswell had avoided an unpleasant scene, and the toast has never been forgotten.

Of those present, twenty-four went into action the next day in the attack on Fricourt. Six were in reserve [Lindell Hart was one of them]. Of the twenty-four, twelve were killed, including Lynch and Haswell. Three died of wounds afterwards, eight were wounded, one slightly and only one left untouched.*

Of the 800 British soldiers assigned to the 9th Battalion, 720 were either killed or wounded in the July 1, 1916, attack on Fricourt.

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Officers of 9th Battalion of the KOYLI, La Neuville, Corbie, April 1916.

Is Civics the Answer?

Does educating school-aged kids in civics encourage greater political involvement when they reach voting age and beyond? A recent Government Executive magazine post got me to thinking about it. As Western style, developed nations go, America has one of the lowest voter turnout rates. Which is incredibly odd and discouraging when you think about it. We’re supposedly the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known, and yet so many “proud” Americans don’t even bother fulfilling the basic requirements of citizenship. Now, there are various reason for this, some more legitimate than others, but considering what’s at stake most of the excuses offered seem pretty lame. So most Americans get the government that other people elect. And don’t fool yourself—if you’re one of these people—that you’re not making an impact by staying home. One may chose to forgo one’s civic responsibility and not show up at the polls, but one cannot actually avoid voting regardless. David Foster Wallace puts it like this:

By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

Anyway, I don’t recall any formal civics education during my elementary school years. If there was it didn’t leave any impression on me. As a pre-schooler, and during my early elementary school years, what civics education I do recall came from watching Schoolhouse Rock! at home, not from the Virginia Beach, Va, school system. If you grew up in the 1970s, 80s, and early-to-mid 90s, I suspect you may recall this video:

As a higher-schooler, I do recall taking a class called Goverment. It’s actually one of the few classes from my high school years I can still recall fairly well. As part of that class, we formed a mock Senate. I was elected—more like sold out—as the moderator, or President pro tempore as it’s called, of our mock U.S. Senate. So yeah, damn it, I really had to pay attention. Using parliamentary procedures, I would mediate the debate and announce the results of various votes on bills put to vote. Mr. Smith, our teacher, would periodically pause the debate to add important considerations that, being high-schoolers, and not yet having adult responsibilities, we might want to consider before voting. Mr. Smith’s aim was to promote critical thinking. He was encouraging us to ask probing questions, and to consider the implications of the bill to society at large.

We carried on this mock Senate for about a week. After about the 2nd day as President pro tempore, like any petty tyrant, I started to enjoy abusing my power a little. So a number of hands would go up to address the Senate during debate. While scanning the room, in my head, my inner monologue would be something like, “That guy’s a chump, forget it, not calling on him…that guys a know-it-all who’ll bore us to tears, not happening….” and then I see the better option…”Oh yeah, the chair gladly recognizes the smoking hot Senator from Virginia….Madam, you may have the floor for as long as you’d like.” Okay, so power corrupts—especially a teenager. But hey, there was a lesson in this. I, at least, learned firsthand why the Founders purposely spread power across various institutions—to ensure power was not centralized…and thus potentially, inevitably, abused.

So I had one class in high school that I could say was directly related to civics. That was it as far as my formal civics education went. Now, one could argue that the various history classes I went through during those years were civics related. Sure. No doubt. I agree in large part with that idea. History does inform one about our nation’s past and the struggles we’ve overcome and the leaders that have made a difference. The history-as-civics approach is what a lot of people seem to emphasis. For example, I noticed in the GEM post the writer used the lack of historical knowledge as the example for “the sorry state of civics education today.” He pointed to surveys showing that:

Only 13 percent of the 1,000 survey respondents, nearly all American-born, could say when the Constitution was ratified (1788, if you were wondering), and fewer than half could identify which countries the U.S. fought against in World War II.

and, hilariously pathetic, that:

Among the most egregious examples from the survey: 2 percent of  respondents identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.

Okay, putting the climate change/Cold War hilarity aside, I’m not at all surprised by these results. I won’t expect a large percentage of Americans to know off-hand what year the U.S. Constitution was ratified. And while I find it pretty sad that “fewer than half” of the respondents knew who the U.S. fought in WWII, it’s probably not bad considering the concern that most people show—which isn’t much—for historical literacy. Let’s face it, history isn’t what a majority of Americans read. The biggest selling category of books are novels, works of the imagination, not history and the examination of factual events, characters, and the interplay among them.

But while I myself love American history, I don’t think we can rely on just history in-general having the impact that, say, a specific history course in American Democracy might have. Or how about a year long high school (2 semester) course specifically all about American Civics?, which would specifically be aimed at explaining our political system AND emphasizing the importance of voting. A course like this could examine the number of very close votes in our history involving significant issues (and politicans) that have impacted our society, both positively and negatively. The course I would design would track the great debates of our history. It would get into the weeds of them. My history-as-civics course would focus on political history, like say, Lincoln’s election and what he was able to accomplish, or FDR’s election and the world he created that so many Americans loved and still benefit from today. Another important aspect of my civics course would be counter-factuals. What if Lincoln had not been elected? What if slavery continued on into the 20th century? What if FDR had not pushed his New Deal reforms? Would the nation have held together? These are all fair questions and should be part of a civics education. Understanding the specific historical issues at stake, the importance of voting and the democratic process, trying to grasp the implications of alternate courses—some good, many bad—that America could have taken as a nation, would probably have a greater impact on young people and their perspectives on the importance of voting and the levels of turnout election day.

With all this said, is promoting a big push in civics going to really, truly, noticeably improve voter turnout down the line? Well, none of us know. In my case I can’t say what little formal civics education I got encouraged me at all. It was more than likely my college education and just life experience itself that turned me into a dedicated voter. But certainly young people given the knowledge and understanding are at least more likely to realize what’s at stake. My guess is, yes, it will help, but not to the levels we’d like, like say an 80% turnout rate, unless further measures are also taken.

So what are the further measures I’m alluding to? Well, first, election day should be a national holiday. There should be strict laws protecting employees from any adverse actions against them for taking the time off to vote. People who work long hours and in very labor intensive jobs may not have employers that are okay with them standing in line, during a work day, for an hour plus to vote. Then add in the various forms of voter suppression that go on in certain states. Things like closing the number of polling stations down in high population areas, and aiming certain voter laws at suppressing the turnout of minority voters. The simple and honest truth is, Why would any politician or political party actively try to limit or make it harder to vote in a democracy? Well, we all know why. That’s why I believe we should have stricter voting laws imposed on states to ensure elections are as open and fair as possible. The Voting Rights Act, which was recently crippled by the Supreme Court, isn’t enough in my view. The idea is to make voting easier, which encourages people to vote. Our democratic republic does not belong to any one party, it belongs to the people. And the people should be pushing to make sure it’s the people, via the mass vote, who will decide the direction of our communities and our country.

So yes, let’s push for more civics classes across the country. That’s a start. These classes should be designed to specifically emphasize the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. And let’s also push for more laws that make voting in our democracy more protected and easier for everyone.

The George Mason Memorial

One of the nice things about early morning jogs on the National Mall is all the small gardens and memorials you come across by happenstance. This morning, because of a construction project blocking my normal path, I was detoured down some steps and into a small garden tucked away near the 14th street bridge along the Potomac river.

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George Mason Memorial (Photo by Jeff Wills)

It’s a beautiful memorial garden dedicated to George Mason of colonial Virginia, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A life size bronze statue of Mason sits on a stone bench beneath a long trellis that curves along the southern end of the garden.

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Statue of George Mason (Photo by Jeff Wills)

Mason appears relaxed and contemplative. On the bench to his right is his hat and walking stick, and on his left are two books; one by John Locke and the other by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Mason was one of the three Virginia delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787 who refused to sign the final draft of the Constitution. Mason actually wrote a paper entitled Objections to this Constitution of Government. Mason cited a lack of a Bill of Rights as his chief concern. But he also wanted an immediate end to the slave trade. He would eventually get his Bill of Rights when they were introduced by James Madison during the First Congress of 1789. The slave trade with America would not end until 1808, and, of course, slavery within the United States would not end until the Civil War.

It was George Mason, by the way, who gave Virginia its official title of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For Mason the state’s name would indicate that power stemmed from the people.

You may have noticed some writing to the left of Mason’s statue, engraved in the stone on the back of the bench. Let me note, these words were written before the Declaration of Independence was published in July of 1776.* The words just might ring familiar to you:

All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights…among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

— George Mason, May 1776

 

*The Declaration of Independence was written over the period between June 11th and July 4th of 1776.

My First Political Memory

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Jimmy Carter & Gerald Ford

Jon Meacham recently tweeted about his first “political memory,” which he said was watching Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. An apt memory for the young (5 years old at the time) Meacham who would become a Pulitzer Prize winning Presidential biographer.

For me, my first political memory was from the presidential election of 1976. America’s choice was between Gerald Ford (R) and Jimmy Carter (D). I was 11 years old at the time. My father and mother supported Gerald Ford and so naturally I was a Ford supporter. On the morning of the election, I remember standing at the bus stop at the corner of Preakness Way and Edwin Drive, holding up a makeshift Ford sign, yelling “Vote for Ford!” at the cars passing by. My best friend John, the same age, stood next to me waving an American flag and yelling “Vote for Carter!” at the same cars.

At our age, we really didn’t know much about politics, and our minds certainly hadn’t hardened into any strict partisan positions. We still had, for the most part, open minds. We were just having fun. Politics, policy, and the leadership of our nation was going to happen regardless of who won. We didn’t feel uneasy or disturbed about who won. This sense of permanency, of the fundamental decency and stability of the American way of life, was never something we doubted. Like the stars in their courses, it was the law of our mental cosmos. And this was so, in large part, because our society respected and demanded certain norms from our public officials & leaders.

At 11 years old John and I might not have understood what the issues were, but we saw two gentlemen (Ford & Carter) who comported themselves in a manner that showed dignity and respect for the office they sought. Of course, just 2 years earlier President Nixon had resigned in disgrace because he had violated those norms (and the law) and his own party, putting country over party and politics, told Nixon he needed to resign. It was a sad day for the nation, but a victory for the rule of law and the American way of life.

That Kempsville High School Year

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Kempsville High School, Virginia Beach, VA. (Photo by Jeff Wills, October 27, 2017)

At 24 years old I moved from the Virginia Beach, Virginia, area where I was born and raised, to the Washington D.C. area, where I have lived ever since. Of course over the years my wife and I have traveled back a lot to visit family and friends. I’ve always been a sentimental person, and its gotten worse as I’ve gotten older and had children. Time is a curious thing, and like Thoreau, it’s a stream I like to go fishing in.

I took the above picture in October of 2017. So about 9 months ago now. Surprisingly, this view is basically the same one I had every weekday morning during my 10th grade year as I pulled my car into the Kempsville High School (KHS) parking lot. The school year was 1982/83. What surprised me, and the thing that still fascinates me about this picture, is just how little the view has changed in the 35 years since I left KHS and transferred to F.W. Cox High School.

KHS was already 16 years old, and overcrowded, when I arrived in 1982. But here you have it, exactly—or so it seems—as I left it: The same bleached red brick building, without any noticeable exterior renovations, with its trademark covered walkway in front. The view—the reminder of a bygone world—set off a whole chain of related memories.

At that moment, in my mind, I could hear a female voice making announcements on the PA system, then the final bell ringing (7 throughout the day), and I could see the crowds of kids emerging from school, many boarding one of the parked yellow school buses lined up in two rows, paralleling the covered walkway. And then there were those, like me, who drove to school. I could see them emerging from between the buses and fanning out into the parking lot. As I stood there preparing to take this picture with my iPhone, I could see the ghost of my former self walking between the cars in the filled to capacity parking lot, headed to my car, books in hand, fumbling for my keys. Like my fellow teenagers, I was in an upbeat mode. It was the best time of day, because, of course, I was leaving.

I wasn’t a particularly good student in school; in fact, I was pretty bad, owing to a lack of focus and my social life taking priority over my academic one. A typical teenage male problem it seems. I can’t say I have a lot of great memories from that year attending KHS, only that it was a significant part—9 months worth—of my teenage years. What really makes this picture and the related memories so wistful is how it reminds me of that unique time in my life. I was a teenage boy who’d recently gotten his learners permit and a new car—a 1982 black Ford EXP. Not exactly a cool sports car set of wheels, but a nice new car nonetheless that I racked up, much to my dad’s chagrin, a lot of mileage riding around looking for friends and things to do. My dad was shocked at how many miles I could put on a car in a year. It was the pre-cellphone era, so targets had to be hunted down, not quickly acquired via text message.

A car begins a whole new phase in a teenager’s life. My parents were easy going and forgiving and so naturally, being a self absorbed kid, I took full advantage of that and spent a lot of time on the roads and hanging with friends. My grades suffered. The most significant friendship I made from my year at KHS was with an easy going guy named Joe Smith. Yes…that’s his actual name. From Joe’s friendship, I connected with a whole new group of friends and had my first serious girlfriend. It was the best of times, it could be the worse of times, it was a time of growth, a time maturing and trying to find my way.

Back then my dad would often remind me “these are the best years of your life.” He meant that for now (because of him) I didn’t have to worry about paying bills and keeping a roof over my head, I didn’t have adult cares to contend with, I just needed to focus on “getting an education,” and staying out of trouble. Two things that became even more of a struggle from that point on. But the truth is I’d do it all over again. Those really were great times, some of the best years of my life, and it all worked out…thank God!!