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Delaney: Veteran's Day Reflections

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November 11 is Veterans Day, once called Armistice Day because it was originally set aside to commemorate the end of World War I.

In part because Veterans Day comes at an austere time of the year, weather wise, there are few public displays of deference to veterans associated with it. Unlike Memorial Day on the threshold of summer, Veterans Day is quiet, like the season, and invites reflection.

Etched also into many Veterans’ minds are inescapable memories of the terrors, sufferings and insanity of war. In his powerful trilogy of World War II, Pulitzer winner and historian Rick Atkinson quotes an infantryman near the war’s end as saying, “My mind is absolutely stripped of all traces of reason for war... Maybe the overall picture justifies (it)... but from an infantryman’s point of view, it’s hard to see.”

At the Battle of the Bulge, during the fiercest European winter in 20 years, Atkinson reports a soldier recalling that, "The cold had settled into my spine... I was a bundle of icy vibrations.” Another passage describes a soldier waking up in a slushy foxhole and finding his feet encased in a block of ice up to his ankles.

Since mankind seems destined to fight wars and since we hardly - if ever - seem to find effective alternatives, I think Veterans Day is a good time for the rest of us to think about war, what our veterans have suffered in it, and what future generations may find in it.

In Atkinson’s trilogy, the third book is titled “The Guns at Last Light.” In it he describes a soldier in a fox hole trying to take care of a mortally wounded comrade. There was no morphine. According to Atkinson, “Nothing worked. He slowly bled to death.”

In war both soldiers and innocents die. There are atrocities on all sides. So there is shame to go around as well. One soldier in February of l945 wrote that they were advancing as fast as “looting” would allow. This is one of the aspects of war that does not lend itself to anecdotes or patriotic sentiment, but does lead to a kind a private, quiet, never-forgetting.

But above all, historian Atkinson honors the veteran caught in the deadliest clutches of war – in places like Bastogne, where the terrible Battle of the Bulge took place – or the beaches of Normandy. Atkinson coined the word “gutful” to describe three airborne divisions at Normandy. For them he has simple words of praise that soar above eloquence... “beset by mischance and confounded by disorder,” he wrote, “they had mostly done what they were asked to do.”

Wars create opportunities for heroic deeds of great bravery as well as occasions for suffering, sorrow and shame. Anyone who doubts that this is so, should ask a veteran.