It's 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 engulfed Europe.

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 place.

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 news instead?

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 2004.

"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 87 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.

David B. Livingstone is a political commentator and arts/culture critic.

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