I wonder how the church bells sounded that morning, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.
They must have cut right through the hearts of those who heard them, in joy and ravaging sorrow for what the chimes announced: Armistice at last, the close of four years of war that cost the world 17 million souls, 20 million wounded and unimaginable destruction on three continents.
How did the bells sound to children who lost their daddies; to the millions left without homes; to the mothers who saw sons, fresh out of high school, wasted in muddied fields; to the adolescent girls raped by war-crazed soldiers, to the starved Armenians who survived genocide?
Was there any sweetness to the peals at all?
I forgot to listen for the bells last Veterans Day. I could have kicked myself. I’ll tie a string around my finger this year. But I still won’t know how they sounded that day. None but a handful of centenarians can.
I stumbled across a superb, 10-part documentary series about the Great War this week. It’s called, simply, “The First World War,” and it’s on par in quality with the BBC’s Second World War classic, “The World at War.” I began watching it on YouTube the night after the election. My 10-year-old, desperate to avoid homework, asked whether she could watch as well.
“Boooring,” she quickly announced, choosing dreaded long division over global division. I’ll put a string on her finger, too.
Armistice Day, now Veterans Day, is no longer about World War I veterans alone. But it’s where I go in my mind when I hear those bells. With every passing year the tug to recall past sacrifices and madnesses grows stronger. I don’t know why.
Maybe it’s guilt for not having served; maybe it’s the passing of my father’s generation, the World War II vets. Korean War veterans are leaving us in great numbers, too. I read a couple of books recently about what they went through. What a nightmare. The sound of Chinese bugles must still haunt the dreams of American survivors.
An email from a friend in Brooklyn named Liam reminds me there will never be a shortage of veterans. The world produces more each day. His late father was a Vietnam War veteran. He lived on the streets of Bay Ridge for most of his life after returning home from Southeast Asia. The email announced a 5k run in his father’s name on Sunday. Proceeds from the Willie McCabe Annual Memorial 5K Run will go to homeless veteran services.
Liam doesn’t need string.
Sometimes I feel badly for having told my three daughters at young ages about terrible things that happened in the last century. I’m not sure they needed to know about Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot or Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin at age 10.
But I’m glad I taught them to listen for the bells. Those they need to hear.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.