Every Veterans Day, I try to do something special to remember or honor a veteran. I don't like the standard flag-waving event that this day has become for many people. In many Veterans Day speeches, the speakers talk about the hundreds of thousands of American veterans who gave their lives for our freedom. The problem with that is twofold: (1) Very few of those who were killed in war literally gave their lives but instead had their lives ripped away, and (2) very few of them fought for our freedom. So my tribute this time is to a veteran who did not give his life and knew that he wasn't fighting for our freedom. That veteran is Richard H. Timberlake, Jr.
Dick Timberlake, who has become a personal friend, is a fairly well-known monetary economist and a veteran of World War II. Timberlake's book They Never Saw Me Then is his account of his time in World War II, first training to be a pilot in the United States and then being a co-pilot of a B-17 on bombing raids over Germany. The book ends with his being wounded in one such raid and then recuperating in hospitals in England and the United States. The title of his book, he explains, comes from the thought that he and his buddies had about their wish for various friends, relatives, and "enemies": "Boy, if they could see me now." But because they couldn't see him then, he writes, his recourse is to tell the story himself. He tells it well.
One thing that is clear throughout the book is that Dick Timberlake had one main goal during the war: to preserve the life of Dick Timberlake. And, he points out, this was the norm. He quotes from Arthur Hoppe, a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle: "I suppose there were a few in World War II who were fighting for freedom or democracy, but in my three years in the Navy I never met one of them. ... [W]e were fighting to stay alive. And that is the true horror of war."
McCrae's challenge, in the last stanza [of the poem "In Flanders Fields], is that we "take up" the "quarrel with the foe" and that we not "break faith" with those who die. But what does it mean to break faith? Shouldn't we, if we are really to act in good faith, try our best to understand why the First World War occurred and why other wars occur? McCrae is surely not saying that he's glad that soldiers died. His "Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/Loved and were loved" reminds us of the vital lives lived by these men, almost all of whom were young. There's such humanitarianism in that one short passage, such a recognition of the preciousness of each human life. Would McCrae really have objected if someone delved deeper into the issues to understand how to prevent war? That's hard to believe. Consider the Pearl Harbor quote. Surely mourning the dead shouldn't mean that we want more people to die, should it? And notice the sentence, "Understand the tragedy." Its author is saying that the deaths of over 2,000 people in Hawaii were tragic. He's also saying that we should understand it. Understanding it requires delving into why it happened.
So let's take up McCrae's challenge and the challenge from the Pearl Harbor quote. Let's not break faith with those who died. And let's understand.
The vast majority of wars in history have been senseless. By that I don't mean that various people who made decisions that led to war didn't have their reasons. Rather, I mean that a look at the record shows that wars rarely achieve what either side wants, kill hundreds of thousands (and, in the case of World Wars I and II, millions) of people, and destroy a large amount of people's wealth. I don't have room to make that case here in detail, but let me make it briefly. World War I was fought, at least from President Wilson's viewpoint, to "make the world safe for democracy." In an ironic sense, it did, but surely not in the way Wilson intended. It made Germany safe for a democratic election in which Hitler was elected. The Allies in Europe entered World War II to protect Poland. It didn't work. Although Poland was freed from Nazi oppression, it was not freed from totalitarian oppression by the Soviet Union and by domestic Polish totalitarians until over 40 years later. And interestingly, when Poland was freed, it was by peaceful means, not war. Franklin D. Roosevelt took coercive measures against Japan, including cutting off its foreign oil supply, to get the Japanese government out of China because he didn't want a brutal government running China. Although the Japanese government was kicked out, for the next 50 years, a brutal government ran China. Some would argue that it still does.
By the way, John McCrae Kilgour, who, I believe, was John McCrae's nephew, was briefly my doctor when I lived in Winnipeg.