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Turning in their graves

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Now known as Veteran’s Day, we honor every former military service member on Nov. 11, including the thousands of now deceased American troops who fought at Flanders and Ypres. Trump, ever the astute political leader of the free world, canceled an appearance at a World War I ceremony during his diplomatic trip to Paris this past weekend. Citing “weather” concerns, Trump instead sent Chief of Staff, former general John Kelly and General Joe Dunford to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial to honor the thousands of American lives lost in France one hundred years ago. As usual, Trump’s decision has garnered backlash from various media commentators who have criticized the president’s supposed deep disrespect of the war dead. Despite the supposedly inconvenient weather, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel still attended their respective ceremonies. 

Trump’s decision to forgo the ceremony at Aisne-Marne, although reflective of his deep political ignorance, is also indicative of a vanishing historical memory of the events and legacy of World War I. Termed “The War to End All Wars,” the four bloody years from 1914-1918 left an indelible legacy in Western society. An entire generation of young men, raised in the halcyon climate of the pre-war Belle Epoque—when industrial progress seemed to promise an optimistic world order—were mowed down in the trenches of Somme and Marne. The generation that survived the war—figures like Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, and George Grosz—crafted a post-1918 culture that critiqued the remains of a society that had sacrificed millions of its youth for a few square miles of muddy French soil. Perhaps most importantly, the first world war planted the seeds for an even bloodier global conflict 20 years down the line. As emphasized by many an A.P. U.S. history teacher, the immense dissatisfaction associated with the Treaty of Versailles fanned the flames of nationalist imperialism in places like Germany and Italy, plunging yet another generation into a mindless conflict. 

The thousands of young Americans who survived the carnage of World War I are all dead. Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of the war, died in 2011. Memories of World War I have receded into history: with no living voices to remind us of the conflict and their generation’s sacrifice. Amidst the living, we still have men and women who fought in Vietnam, Korea, and in World War II (in dwindling numbers) to remind us of the historical legacy that such bloody conflicts imprinted upon our collective American psyche. Perhaps our grandparents can even recount stories of mass college protests against L.B.J., of snowstorms in the Chosin reservoir or of storming the beaches of Normandy. Yet as they too die off, will we retain the historical memories of such important events in our nation’s past? Thirty years down the line, will a sitting U.S. president be able to excuse himself from a World War II ceremony on Veteran’s Day, with no living veterans from that conflict to criticize him? 

Trump’s action this past Saturday are even more disconcerting, considering his supposed pro-veteran agenda. Having declared himself an avid supporter of America’s military, Trump has framed himself as a benefactor of various veteran causes in his presidential administration. In an op-ed written by the vice president yesterday, Pence even publicly declared that “veterans have no better friend than President Trump.” Trump’s actions of late, including drastic budget cuts to the Department of Veteran Affairs and measures to privatize veteran healthcare, seemingly belie his position as a pro-veteran president. Unwilling to risk a wet suit just to lay down a wreath, Trump has again put himself ahead of his country, and has disrespected a population of individuals who deserve more respect, especially on a day that memorializes their many sacrifices. 

Ultimately, Trump’s decision not to attend the ceremony at Aisne-Marne this past Saturday is symptomatic of a greater lack of historical memory in relation to World War I, and of his false promises to “make America great again” for veterans. By refusing to attend the ceremony, Trump has disregarded the thousands of voiceless Americans, dead among the poppies in Flanders Field and Arlington, who offered their youth and innocence to serve in the trenches of France. With each passing day, memories of important events in our nation’s past grow fainter and fainter as our veterans succumb to the ages. Lest we decide to forgo a cemetery visit honoring veterans from a forgotten conflict, let us never disregard casualties—both emotional and physical—of wars, no matter how distant in the historical record they may seem.  

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