A Century Ago: Contemplation on Veterans I Have Known, and on the End of the Great War
The year of my birth marked the centennial of the great American Civil War. At that time, the “late unpleasantness,” as some Southerners called it, was barely removed from the realm of living memory. The last Union and Confederate veterans had passed away only a few years earlier, but their collective experience and their impact on my Southern world lived on – and continues to live on to this day.
It is on this day, November 11, 2018, that our human journey through time passes another centennial: the one hundredth year since the end of the Great War. As with the centennial of the Civil War, World War I is barely beyond living memory. The last American veteran, Frank Woodruff Buckles, died in 2011. I recall an exhibit featuring him and a handful of other World War I veterans in the Pentagon. Mr. Buckles participated in the ceremony dedicating that exhibit in 2008. Sadly, although I was working in the Pentagon at the time, I missed that event. It’s a pity; now that I am an old soldier, I cherish opportunities to honor those who have gone before me.
Tomorrow I will join my family in doing just that. How fitting that, on the day America officially celebrates the centennial of Veteran’s Day, we gather at church to pay our respects to my father-in-law, Chaplain (Colonel) Retired) Raymond Barry. He left us just a few days ago after a long and fruitful life. Being the only other military person in this branch of the family, it was my honor to write his obituary. The experience taught me much about him. People don’t think much about Chaplains when they think of soldiers, but without our Chaplains, we soldiers would not do our duty half so well. Theirs is truly a thankless task. They bear some of the heaviest burdens, but few recognize it. Doctors and nurses deal with the visible consequences of combat, but Chaplains deal with the invisible consequences – not only of combat, but of the daily grind of life for the soldier and his or her family. Life is hard enough as it is, but soldiers have the added burden of service to an often ungrateful nation. It is a service that takes them frequently to the most undesirable and dangerous places, where they must do the most difficult of tasks that may or may not solve the problems they are sent to address. Who can fix Somalia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq? Thus, we soldiers endure the worst, often only to see the temporary solutions we have bought at such a dear price come unraveled before we have had time properly to process our ordeals.
Properly processing, by the way, means doing so with the loved ones from whom we have been so long – and so often – separated. They, too, suffer while we are away. During my last tour in Iraq, my greatest pain came not in what I endured in the combat zone called Baghdad, but in the grievous hurt inflicted on those at home. My family and the families of many of my comrades had to deal with death, injury, assault, sickness, and more while we were away and unable to protect or help them. Does anyone think of that when they think of veterans? Probably not.
Which is why we need Chaplains. That’s what my father-in-law did. He was a pastor in uniform for 30 years, serving on three continents through most of the Cold War, and a hard year in the hot war called Vietnam. One might not be surprised to learn that he prayed for and with soldiers about to leave this world in the midst of combat. They died in his arms, and he wept for them. At other times, they died in peacetime, and he stayed by them in the hospital to pray for and weep with their loved ones. That is the kind of service no one saw, but the kind that produces good fruit that impacts generations. And that is why we honor Ray Barry, now and always.
We honor all veterans on this day, but in particular I hold in my heart those who gave so much a century ago. The course of nations and of peoples was established in that war to end all wars. As a historian, I can explain how World War I shaped the current global system and continues to define the way nations relate to one another. Yet instead of a history lecture, let me offer some personal examples of how the Great War shaped my life. Two British veterans of that war became my favorite authors. Through their collective works, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien helped me see the world. I still filter much through a Tolkienesque lens and draw considerable inspiration and wisdom from the observations of Professor Lewis. Could either of them have been mentors to three generations without their combat experience in France? I think not. They would have been honorable men and respected scholars, but had they not endured that horrid crucible, would Lewis ever have embarked on the intellectual faith journey that brought him to the cross of Jesus Christ? Would Tolkien have been able to synthesize the totality of human experience in the mythical epics that bear his name? And without those influences, where would I be? Where would you be?
Then there is my grandfather, Garland Victor “Bill” McCarn. I knew him as a kind elderly man who rarely left his apartment, but who always appreciated seeing his grandsons. A stroke took him from us when I was but six years old. It was not until some time later when my father explained to me about his service in the Great War. Daddy Mack, as we knew him, did not see combat, and with the hindsight of a lifetime I consider that a blessing for him. Yet he did see France in 1918. At the age of 30, when he was establishing a clerical career and settling down with a wife and infant son, his nation called on him to don the uniform and depart for a distant shore. He learned the skills of a combat engineer, employing those to good effect in the first half of 1919 to repair war-ravaged France. To my knowledge, after his return home in May of that year, he never went overseas again. Even so, he knew what to expect when his children served in Europe during the next war. He told my father, Jack, that he wished he could go in his place. I do not know what he told his daughter, Alice, but as a father of daughters myself, I surmise his heart broke even more grievously than when he said farewell to his son.
I surmise as well that he remembered his own wartime service as a watershed event of his life. He was never the same afterward. I do not know what Daddy Mack was like before the war; my father was born several years after he had put off the uniform. The experience no doubt hardened him, but nothing could prepare him for the loss of his beloved wife, Ammie Clyde Latimer McCarn. She died of pneumonia just two years after my father was born. It unhinged Daddy Mack. His life had taken two serious turns in less than a decade, and even before he was able to adjust to the new normal, the Great Depression arrived to take away all he had worked to achieve for his diminished family. The story is long and sad, and it seems that the grace of God, shown in the form of many kind and caring hands and faces of many colors, carried him and his children through the hard years ahead. In all that brokenness, Garland still succeeded in helping my father become the man he was, and through him, to help me become the man I am.
What did he think of his World War I service? The only answer I have is in a book he left behind. When I first saw it, the book was charred and damaged from a fire that had engulfed many of his belongings. Years later, I took possession of that book and had it rebound. It sits on my bookshelf today, a fond legacy of my grandfather that he purchased in the midst of the Great Depression. It must have been very important to him to make what others might deem a frivolous expense in times when the little money he had should have gone toward more pressing needs. The work is called Forward-March! The Photographic Record of America in the World War and the Post War Social Upheaval, published in two volumes by Disabled American Veterans in 1934. Some years ago, I discovered that this work had been republished online. My grandfather probably owned both volumes, but only the second survived the fire. Nevertheless, that single volume was enough for a small boy enthralled with the stories of a bygone era. As I paged through its contents, it never occurred to me that, many years later, the same DAV would help me make the transition to civilian life upon my retirement from the Army. All I knew at the time was that the pictures told stories of soldiers long ago, and of a world enduring a cataclysmic transformation.
My grandfather was part of that. One hundred years ago, in Brest, France, he breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he would be returning safely home. I can think of no better way to honor him than to share some of the photos from Forward March! that captured my childhood imagination. Consider this a tribute to all veterans of all wars, regardless of the uniform they wore. We might have been adversaries in days gone by, but nothing changes the fact that we are all human.
I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
These images were downloaded from the online edition of Forward-March! The Photographic Record of America in the World War and the Post War Social Upheaval. The captions are as they appear in the original work published in the 1930s.