November 23, 2005
Never Over 'Over There'
In 1918, Mary Detwiler was an
idealistic 18-year-old from Michigan who had
heeded George M. Cohan's clarion call for
young patriots to go "over there" in the
service of her country in World War I.
Hastily trained as a Red Cross nurse in a
Detroit hospital, she had joined the legions
of men -- and a few women -- who left the
safety of their stateside lives for the mud,
blood and virulent madness of war that had
November 11, 1918 found her
surrounded by seemingly limitless numbers of
damaged and dying bodies, the ghastly human
by-product of the world's first mechanized
war, in a hotel-turned-hospital in
Etre-Etats in northern France.
Although the guns had fallen
silent, the suffering and dying continued.
There was no respite for the weary nurses of
the Red Cross, whose ministrations would be
required for weeks and months by the new
armies of armless, legless, bullet-riddled,
gas-poisoned, and gasoline-burned -- men who
would continue to suffer and die through the
winter and following spring, long after the
victory parades and political speeches had
receded into memory.
Until her own death nearly 70
years later, Mary Detwiler could still
recall their names and faces: Willy, the
quadruple-amputee British boy, his body
riddled with terminal gangrene, convinced to
the last that his family was coming to see
him; the legless German POW who whiled away
his bedridden hours fashioning her a vase
from a spent brass artillery shell, using a
nail as a chisel. The gasps and gurgles from
the voiceless mustard gas victims whose
eyes, lungs and tongues had burned away,
would echo through the wards at night.
Detwiler knew what sort of
life the survivors would return home to. In
most cases, neither the scars nor the pain
would fully recede, and simple survival
would have to suffice in place of full
recovery. But a grateful world would thank
these men for their valiant sacrifice in
"the war to end all wars." There would be
"peace in our time," guaranteed by a noble
League of Nations. There would be plaques
and monuments, and November 11 would be
forever known as "Armistice Day" -- at least
until the cessation of another round of
monumental brutality a generation later made
the conjoining of remembrances more
cost-effective, and "Veteran's Day" took its
Were she alive today, what
sorrow and disbelief might Mary Detwiler
feel as the dispassionate talking heads on
the 24-hour-news channels told of the
bombing of Red Cross facilities in Baghdad?
Or of apartment blocks in Riyadh? Or of the
downing of Chinook helicopters or the
shelling of hotels? Or the all-night aerial
bombardment of a town called Tikrit? All
activities undertaken with as much savagery
as the English, Germans, French and
Americans had managed to inflict upon one
another in late 1918.
And what would Mary Detwiler,
or any veteran of World War I, think of a
United States of America that steadfastly
refused to look squarely at the flag-draped
coffins returning to Andrews Air Force Base,
or at its own mutilated citizen-soldiers
torn to shreds by RPGs or roadside bombs, on
the grounds that such observances might be
bad for either morale or ratings?
What might such a veteran
think of million-dollar book and movie deals
for photogenic blonde privates, and fat
no-bid reconstruction contracts for
Halliburton? What might such a veteran think
of the bleating of armchair-warrior
television and radio talk show hosts, whose
sole combat experience arrived courtesy of
Action Comics and The History Channel?
And what might she think of
an American president who, with the
squandering of his own political capital
firmly in mind, impatiently brushes aside
any mention of the human cost of his desert
war, insisting that "Mission Accomplished"
was something more than a bitter joke and
demanding emphasis upon the "positive" Iraq
It doesn't seem too
farfetched to imagine that the somber
speeches and carefully stage-mananaged
ceremonies at Arlington might seem a good
deal less sincere to such a woman on this
Veteran's Day 2005.
"We won't come back 'til it's
over, over there," George M. Cohan wrote
back in 1917. He hadn't thought that would
mean "never," that the madness would
continue 88 years later with only a few
years' intermission and a change of venue.
But Mary Detwiler and others of her
generation would know that even though
military barbarism may always have free
reign to roam the earth, thanks to the
indifference and opportunism of the nations'
elites, simple human suffering will always
come home to roost.
2005 North Star Writers Group. May not
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