Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Remembering 11/11

At 11:11 on 11/11 each year, the siren mounted on the water tower in my home town (Grant City, MO) would go off for one minute. The school I attended from 1945-55 was just a couple of blocks away, so we students could hear it well from our classroom. I’m afraid it didn’t mean as much to me then as it should have, but the blaring of the siren commemorated the end of World War I at that very time in 1918.

My father was the youngest grandchild of William and Rachel Seat, although William died long before my father was born. “Grandma” Seat’s oldest grandchild, Leslie, was born in 1890, the son of Jacob and Isabelle Williams. (The Isabelle Church in Worth County, which is long gone, and the Isabelle Cemetery, which is still used, were named for Isabelle (Seat) Williams, who died a couple of weeks after Leslie’s birth.)

Leslie Williams served as a soldier in World War I. Several times I heard my father tell the story about Leslie. On the very first morning he was deployed to the battlefield, Leslie was shot in the leg. The wound was so bad his leg had to be amputated at the knee. Later, probably more than once, when someone exclaimed at how unfortunate he was to be injured so quickly after going to battle, Leslie’s quick reply was, “No, I was lucky; those who were not wounded in the morning were killed that afternoon.”

Although I never knew my father’s cousin Leslie, I have often thought about him when reflecting on the tragedy known as World War I. Indeed, he was one of the fortunate ones, for there were at least 8,500,000 military deaths in that war, including around 120,000 from the U.S. About twice that many who were wounded, like Leslie Williams and other young men from all over the nation.

Prolific British author H. G. Wells’ book The War that Will End War was published in 1914, the beginning year of the Great War, as it was called at the time. President Woodrow Wilson emerged as a skilled wartime leader in the U.S. by molding public opinion with such optimistic phrases as “a war to make the world safe for democracy” and “a war to end all wars,” paraphrasing Wells.

But here it is, over ninety years later, and our country and many others are still entangled in war. On August 31 of this year, the President announced that the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) is over—but there are still close to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. And there are nearly twice that number deployed to the War in Afghanistan, which is now in its tenth year.

Tomorrow, on the 92nd anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, let’s join in prayer that all of the troops will soon come home, and arrive walking on two good legs.


  1. The first response received was this e-mail message from my esteemed friend Dr. Glenn Hinson:

    "I join you in that prayer. Humans do not seem to grasp what all wars tell us. Would that we might learn something from them."

  2. Perhaps some would be interested to know that Leslie lived more than 50 years after his leg was amputated, dying in October 1969.

  3. I was pleased to receive the following comment from Bill Tammeus, who makes significant blog postings everyday on "Faith Matters" at As many of you know, he is the former Faith columnist for the "Kansas City Star."

    "Thanks, Leroy.

    "I'll have some 11/11 thoughts on my blog tomorrow."

  4. Thanks for helping us remember Amistice Day. The day has evolved from Armistice Day to a day to remember the sacrifice of all veterans. The latter was done in 1954. Interestingly and unfortunately it took the nation 178 years...after eight declare such a day for all veterans.

    While some use the day to celebrate our military might and even the glory of war, I like it serving as a reminder that we send no more Americans into unwanted and unnecessary wars.

    I will be remembering my grandfather, Emil Yunghans, who served in the "war to end all wars." He only got as far as Ft. Riley and was not sent overseas. My family is thankful for that.

    For those who find WWI of interest, I commend to you Ken Follett's newest book, Fall of Giants. It is the first of a trilogy that will span the 20th Century. But the focus of this book is introducing five families who live in different parts of the world and seeing how they intertwine before, through and after WWI.

  5. I have always thought that it takes at least three generations to deal with the memory of a war. One generation to fight the war, one generation to suffer the effects of the returning warriors, and the third generation finally understand the war. Sadly, it appears that in the culture of United States, there are too many wars to process. Remembering becomes difficult for successive generations, because the next war intrudes on the healing process needed for survivors to reflect upon the experience of the previous wars.

  6. I lived my high school years near Washington, DC, and frequently saw various war memorials. Something seemed oddly overdone about them, but I was not sure what or why. Then years later I returned, and for the first time saw the new Vietnam Memorial. To my surprise, I cried. I am not even a veteran, but still I was overwhelmed. To my further surprise, the other memorials began to make sense. I could finally read them.

    I even gained new insight into subtle discrepancies between the stories of my father's generation's childhood and adult lives. Even the "Greatest Generation" paid a significant price for their war. None of us are what we might have been without war.

    On this Veterans' Day our nation is still trying to wind down a "pre-emptive war." Our improving medical care has greatly reduced the fatalities from Vietnam to Iraq, but at the price of greatly increasing the severely handicapped. For decades to come our nation will continue to pay a great price for this war of choice.

    Another war, an even older war, begun with a better reason, but bungled into a dreadful morass, drags on in Afghanistan. Would we be better off today if we had never started? Will the war ever end if we do not confront hard questions? Would the end be even worse than the war? If we someday build an Afghanistan War Memorial down by the Vietnam War Memorial, what will it look like? What will it say? What will we learn?

    Tomorrow is Veterans' Day. We remember our dead. We honor those living. We share our stories. Tomorrow is Veterans' Day.