Utah has seen its share of casualties in these conflicts. One year ago, the mayor of North Ogden, Brent Taylor, died when a member of the Afghani special forces he was training turned his gun on him.
But that just scratches the surface of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the nation’s armed forces. I’m old enough to remember the daily casualty reports from Vietnam in the 1960s, coming in numbers we took for granted but that would stagger the nation today.
A UPI report from August of 1967 was typical. “Casualty reports from last week showed 146 Americans died,” it said.
Years ago, I wrote about my vivid memories of how, as a 5-year-old, I went next door to play with a friend on a sunny day in April 1965, only to find a house filled with mourners. My friend’s daddy, a pilot, had been on a mission to attack rail lines in North Vietnam when his plane was hit. To this day, his remains have not been found. The family lived for years not knowing if he was dead or captured, but when the prisoners of war were released, he didn’t come home.
Monday will mark the moment, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when “the war to end all wars” came to an end in 1918. If you leaf through a newspaper from any day that week, you will catch the spirit of the times — the gratitude, the faith in a just cause and the firm belief that the world, once and for all, had learned its lesson.
My opinion-writing ancestors at the Deseret News wrote that the day, “signalized this year by the surrender of the last of the earth’s great autocracies, will have in the years to come a broad and beneficent meaning more far-reaching than any other political event in history.”
The paper urged that Nov. 11 become a worldwide holiday. This, the editors argued, “would foreshadow the early coming of the time of which poets have sung and reformers dreamed and for which prophets have prayed.”
They added this bold prediction: “After the bitternesses of this horrid war shall have passed away ... those who now feel themselves defeated and humiliated will bless the hand that smote them …”
Less than 15 years later, Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany, leading to a second world war far more horrific than the first.
My predecessors at their typewriters couldn’t foresee that. Nor could they see an endless stream of conflicts and a seemingly never-ending rise of autocracies and stateless terrorists. Armistice Day became Veterans Day as the list of post-1918 casualties grew, and an end to all wars, just as an end to the need for soldiers and selfless heroes, never came.
America, it has been said, is more of an idea than a typical nation. We are bound by that idea, not ethnicity. It is what brings people here from around the world, fueled by the promise of a better life for them and their children.
But it is an idea with a price, and history has shown that no single generation can pay it fully.
Given all that has happened over the last 101 years, it’s fair to ask, was the unbounded optimism of that first Armistice Day naive? Was the belief that goodness, democracy and liberty would prevail overly idealistic? Is the American ideal that sets this day apart noble and heroic, or is it hopeless and unrealistic in a complicated and violent world?
I suppose each generation has to answer those questions anew. But the best way to do so may be to ponder another question: What would the world be like if that American idea did not exist