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Thoughts on Veterans Day, WWI and Wars That Last

by John Aquino on 11/12/18

On Veterans Day, which is also the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, my thoughts turn to my Dad and General Pershing, whom my Dad served under and admired.

These thoughts were further fueled by the premiere of Pershing: Paths to Glory, which my wife and I attended Sunday at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland. Our friend Helen Patton is interviewed in the film. She was in town for the premiere and also for a commemoration of Veterans Day at the Washington National Cathedral. She is the granddaughter of General George S. Patton, who also served under General John J. Pershing in World War I and regarded him as his mentor.

My Dad, Sylvester J. Aquino, never went overseas. He was a freshman at Georgetown University when the war broke out, joined the navy through the university, and trained in Washington, D.C. We have photos of him in his navy uniform.


He always admired General Pershing and kept photos he had taken of Pershing's funeral procession in 1948 in Washington. 

The Pershing film, which was produced by the World War I Centennial Commission, takes an unexpected approach to its subject. Its focus is on young cadets who travel to important places in Pershing's life to learn more about him. As they go to locations in the U.S. and France associated with Pershing, they learn, as did we, facts about Pershing's life. He was born in 1860 in Laclede, Missouri. He graduated from West Point, served in the cavalry, and commanded a troop of one of the original Buffalo soldier regiments composed of African American soldiers serving under white commanding officers. He returned to West Point as an instructor where his stern discipline and his Buffalo soldier experience earned him the nickname "Blackjack Pershing" It was originally not a compliment. The documentary suggested that the newspapers "cleaned up" the nickname, which meant that it contained the "N" word coupled with "Jack," a variation of his first name. But the nickname, cleaned up, stuck, and by the turn of the 20th century presented an image of an officer of strength and force. He served in the Philippines and other locales and was promoted to general. In 1915, his wife and three daughters were killed in a fire, an event that affected him the rest of his life. In 1916, he was assigned to capture the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. His troops routed Villa's forces, but Villa was not captured. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Patton was made commander of the American Expeditionary Force. He was credited with U.S. victories, and they, coupled with the naval mutiny and the collapses of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, led the the armistice in November 1918. He became a national and international hero.

The documentary shows that they have war reenactors in Europe, dressed in World War I uniforms, just as we have civil war reenactors in the U.S., and also that, just as those of us in the states may discover civil war bullets or cannon balls in the ground, the Europeans refer to the "iron harvest" of shells, bullets, broken swords, and shattered helmets that farmers continue to discover over the vast landscape that WWI occupied. That war was virtually a stalemate for four years, wiping out a generation of young man through death, by crippling them, or haunting their minds. I am very fond of the 1968 film, based on a stage play, Oh! What a Lovely War, directed by Richard Attenborough, that chronicles the war through contemporary songs. The mood changes from the jolly title song to 'The Bells of Hell (Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling for your but not for me)." It concludes with the image of an endless field of crosses and young men walking to their place before a cross, lying down, and disappearing into the earth while a male chorus sings in the background Cole Porter's parody of Jerome Kern's love song "They Didn't Believe Me"--"And when they ask us how dangerous it was/Oh, we'll never tell them, no, we'll, never tell them" which ends, "And when they ask us, and they're certainly going to ask us/ The reason why we didn't win the Croix d'Guerre,/Oh, we'll never tell them, we'll never tell them/There was a front but damned if we knew where." As a student of film, I have been interested in how many war films of the 1930's are anti-war films: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) with its focus on a young man whose ideals are all but crushed by the war--final image, his hand stretches out reaching for a butterfly before he is shot and killed; Dawn Patrol (1930 and 1938) and Eagle and the Hawk (1933) about sending of young, experienced men as pilots who are slaughtered in the air by more experienced pilots. The latter film ends, SPOILER ALERT, with the top pilot shooting himself in anguish over the senselessness of war and his gunner arranging his death so that it looks like he died in battle. In the original final shot, which was edited out, the gunner becomes a drunkard because he has effectively cheapened his friend's death. Yesterday, my wife asked me about the poem "In Flander's Fields" by John McCrae, and immediately, remembering it completely from doing a recitation of it in sixth grade, I said it straight through, ending, "Take up our quarrel with the foe/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch, be yours to hold it high,]If ye break faith with us who die,/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields."

Commentators on the centennial of the end of World War I have noted that it, of course, wasn't, as promised, the war to end all wars. The U.S. has been engaged in at least five wars since then. Issues of 1914 to 1918 such as nationalism that prompts conflict remain with us. The wartime poet Wilfred Owens, who died just before war's end, wrote that all that soldiers  know is that wars last. Wars end with joy and sadness, which means, if nothing else, that they never end. At dinner before the film's premiere, Helen Patton, an actress, recited for my wife and me what she had recited in the Washington National Cathedral that morning, a 1918 poem by the poet Siegfried Sassoon on the reaction to the end of the war.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Let us pray that Sassoon ultimately was right.

Copyright 2018 by John T. Aquino

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