Yesterday, November 11th, was celebrated as Veterans Day in the U.S. It used to be called Armistice Day. On that day in 1918, the major fighting of World War I ended. It was when, Kurt Vonnegut has written, “millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another.”
Historian Heather Cox Richardson remembers George Lawrence Price, a private serving with Company A of the 28th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Belgium during World War I on this day.
“As the moment of the armistice approached, a few soldiers continued to skirmish, and Price’s company set out to take control of the small town of Havre. As they crossed a canal to their target, a German gunner hidden in a row of houses tried to stop them. Once safely across, just ten minutes before the armistice, the Canadian patrol began to look for the German soldier who had harassed them. They found no one but civilians in the first two homes they searched. And then, as they stepped back into the street, a single shot hit Price in the chest. He fell into the arms of his comrade, who pulled him back into the house they had just left. As Price died, German soldiers cleared their guns in a last burst of machine-gun fire that greeted the armistice.
Price’s life ended just two minutes before the Great War was over.
Even at the time, Price’s death seemed to symbolize the pointless slaughter of WWI. When an irony of history put Price in the same cemetery as the first Allied soldier to die in the conflict, disgusted observers commented that the war had apparently been fought over a half-mile of land. In the years after the war ended, much was made of George Price, the last soldier to die in the Great War.“
But Richardson also wants us to remember the man who pulled the trigger, who decided — knowing that peace was only two minutes away — to take another life and deny him a future. It was legal. It was also surely, she writes, immoral.
“He went back to civilian life and blended into postwar society, although the publicity given to Price’s death meant that he must have known he was the one who had taken that last, famous life in the international conflagration. The shooter never acknowledged what he had done, or why.
Price became for the world a heartbreaking symbol of hatred’s sheer waste. But the shooter? He simply faded into anonymity, becoming the evil that men do.“
Political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” after watching the 1961 trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann. “Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet — and this is its horror — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think.”
We’re also reminded on this day of what the leader of the Republican Party, Cadet Bone Spurs, really thinks about those who gave up their life for this country. “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” Jeffrey Goldberg quotes Donald Trump as saying in 2018 when he refused to visit the World War I Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris. West Point graduate Lucian K. Truscott IV reminds us that Trump blamed rain for the visit’s cancellation, claiming that his helicopter couldn’t fly and that the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him to the ceremony. Neither claim was true.
Donald Trump is the leader of a Republican party that, as Truscott notes, “isn’t a political party anymore. It’s a safe deposit box filled with grievance and anger and hate.” But Donald Trump didn’t make this once proud party what it is today. As is his custom, he only showed the ugliness behind the veil when you pull back the curtain. Last Tuesday, former United States Senator Max Cleland, a distinguished veteran, passed away. Senator Cleland left his arm and both legs in Vietnam. He was dishonored by evil men in the Republican Party in the 2002 mid-term elections as being soft on terror, well before Donald Trump came on the scene. In a similar vein, former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry, another distinguished veteran decorated for valor who bravely spoke out against the Vietnam War, was dishonored during the 2004 presidential campaign by the same evil men.
Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote of Armistice Day in the preface to Breakfast of Champions.
“I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Rest in peace, George Lawrence Price, and all the men and women who have sacrificed their lives for good over evil.
More to come…
Image: Remembrances for D-Day 2019 in the British village of Chipping Campden (photo by DJB)