Some time ago I was talking to older son about some of my regrets. As regrets go, mine aren’t massive. I’m still married to the love of my life, I have two wonderful sons.
Are there things I could have done differently? Many. Some of them, of course, would require prescience, some only that we overcome the goofy fears of youth and take the plunge, such as moving to Colorado six or seven years earlier. My heart told me that’s where we should be, but– how were we to know? Dan had never been here, I’d never been here and we knew no one here. There was nothing but the yearnings of a little 8 year old in Portugal who was so ill informed she thought Denver was by the sea, but who wanted to move to Denver and be a writer, both unlikely experiences. It’s a miracle I took the plunge at all, and that Dan indulged me, let alone that we didn’t do it earlier.
In this case, I was telling older son about the bath we took on our starter home in Charlotte, NC, and how we should instead have bought the house we really wanted, which we decided was too expensive per square foot (but which was in a neighborhood that was gentrifying and going up like a rocket, so we’d have doubled our purchase price in the five years we owned that first house. Besides its being the house we really wanted.)
And older son, who sometimes is wise beyond his years said, “Yeah, but you do what you can with what you know at the time. You can’t make yourself know more, and you can’t be mad at yourself for what you didn’t know then.”
Which brings us to Memorial Day and Flanders fields.
I’ve come to have a strong desire to visit the battle fields of World War I. Someday it will happen, if I live long enough. Mostly because I’m conflicted about World War I. Was it needed? Was it the best we could have done? Was it useful?
If Europe was going to end up united under a German aegis, couldn’t we have done it without killing the best of the youth of Europe?
WWI was the last of the good ol’ European wars where, periodically, for no reason at all, a country would go on a rampage.
And was what we lost in WWI so bad? Compared, say to the Napoleonic wars?
Was the reason that WWI hit so hard the fact that it was a war you could take the train to, and one that the press made a spectacle of?
Or was it because it wasn’t — the Keiser not withstanding — a war not for king and country, but for country and state. The first “industrial” state war, the foretelling of what was to come in the 20th century.
Would, had WWI not happened, Russian (to quote the prophecies of Fatima) “been allowed to spread its errors throughout the world.”
Would nothing like WWII have happened, or would it have happened harder, faster, from a great height? Would the crazy ideas of racial supremacy and — ick — “genetic hygiene” quote even by the decent people of the early twentieth century have lead to something far more horrific than WWII, something backed by a united Europe that hadn’t lost its self-righteousness?
No one knows.
Were the stories of German soldiers committing atrocities throughout Belgium a fabrication of the press to bolster nations into war?
No one knows.
There is no “control world” against which we can test the decisions that were less than wonderful in results int his world.
They did what they could with what they knew at the time. And millions of young men — somewhere between 9 and 11 million — marched away to defend their country, according to the best understanding of the world at the time, and their best understanding of what would keep their family alive and safe.
And they died. They died horribly. So many of them that those fields still give up human bodies.
And the innocence of Europe died with them, ushering in an era of mass murder by state apparatus.
Did their sacrifice help or hinder what was to come? No one knows.
We know they fought and died for country, for home, for their culture, for decency and civilization.
In Flanders fields they sleep beneath the poppy fields, the best and brightest of their generation, waiting the final reveille and the final understanding, when they’ll know perhaps that their sacrifice was not in vain after all.
They did the best they could with what could be known at the time.
No one can do more. May we, should it be required of us, have the courage to do as well.