In the Wake of War
Reflecting upon yesterday’s national holiday, an occasion for us to commemorate the service and self-sacrifice of our veterans, I was struck by the ways in which our arts—sculpture, poetry and literature, painting, etc.—help us to capture the sentiments of society on such a day.
As you probably know, Veterans’ Day was formally initiated on the anniversary of the armistice of the First World War: November 11. That eleventh day of November served as a reminder to those who survived the Lost Generation of the great sacrifices of veterans—both those lost and the survivors who returned to society forever-marked by their service.
In particular, the ability to propagate civil society involves the cultivation of civic memory: the remembrance of the sacrifices of others; the reflection on the ideals for which others have sacrificed; and the recommitment of the citizenry to a healthy patriotism. The development of such civic memory is supported and enhanced by the creativity and imagination at work in masterful works of art. Examples of such works from the Great War include the following:
- Poetry—e.g., Wilfred Owens, Edward Sasson
- Paintings—e.g., John Nash, Percy Wyndham Lewis
- Music—e.g., Irving Berlin, George Cohan
- Literature—e.g., Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien
Surely the Great War was a modern cataclysm with profound, far-reaching effects on the Western imagination. Modern warfare’s indiscriminate, catastrophic scope unleashed a man-made hell on the battlefield, leaving carnage and destruction on a scale previously unimaginable. Furthermore, as World War I continued for four devastating years, no strategic purpose was clearly identified—other than the plan to proudly prove the other side wrong. Such hubris is captured succinctly in the poetic lines of Wilfred Owen, a veteran who did not survive the war. Yet, Owen’s poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” echoes across the generations, reminding us of the self-imposed limits of human pride.
With these works of imagination in mind, allow me to recommend further reflection on the artistic achievements of veterans and the generations that survive war, even as we strive to make sense of our human condition—in all of its greatness and its frailty.