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Webb gives keynote at Veterans Day ceremony

Updated 10:50 am, Wednesday, November 14, 2012

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  • New Canaan Police officers David Payne, Jeffrey Deak and Jason Kim present the colors during the town's Veterans Day ceremony at God's Acre.  Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, New Canaan, Conn. Photo: Jeanna Petersen Shepard
    New Canaan Police officers David Payne, Jeffrey Deak and Jason Kim present the colors during the town's Veterans Day ceremony at God's Acre. Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, New Canaan, Conn. Photo: Jeanna Petersen Shepard

 

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Richard Webb, head of New Canaan High School's social studies department, gave the keynote address at New Canaan's Veterans Day ceremony Sunday at God's Acre. Below is his speech in full:

Good morning to all the heroes who served and to elected officials and guests: Thank you for joining us here today. It is a beautiful day in a beautiful country and thank you for coming together in Thanksgiving and remembrance.

If we could have a moment of silence for all the men and women who have served in the past, are serving now and to those who will in the future.

To be able to make this speech is the greatest honor of my life.

It when my uncle was under morphine at the hospital that it came out the first time. His toes were being operated on due to the effects of frostbite in the Ardennes forest in the winter of 1944. Never before and rarely after did he share what occurred to him at the age of 19, shortly after he had enlisted during his freshman year at Princeton University.

He was blown out of three Sherman tanks in the course of a single engagement. A remarkable fact obviously, not the least of which was the ability of the United States to supply that amount of replaceable material in a single engagement. He played dead- while half dead- in the snow and was able to fool a passing German patrol. The toes never recovered and he used a cane for the rest of his life. His all-time NCAA record as a hurdler would never be threatened, at least by himself.

But this was not the full story. I have presented to you the sanitized version of a very unsanitary thing called war- and we Americans are good at that- and more on that a bit later.

I have struggled to include the rest of this tale but today may be the day to do so.

While penned in the tank due to the ferocity and confusion of the battle, one of his fellow tankers was wounded when, driven insane by several days of confinement, he had put his head out of the turret and was instantly hit by rifle fire. His mates pulled him back.

In short, it was obvious to all he was soon to be gone-and in great pain. The decision made within that steel hull was that friends had to help end his suffering. It was the right thing to do and an act of extreme love. They had to his leave his body and continued fighting.

This was my first consciousness that Walt Whitman related was right- that after seeing and caring for hundreds of Civil War wounded- `that the real war will never get into the books'.

For years after the war ex-soldiers like my uncle seized up when facing a patch of grass and would only feel safe walking on concrete or asphalt- because of their memory of German mines.

Some questioned my uncle's patriotism when he never attended a Fourth of July. Early after the war a car accelerating or backfiring would send him sprawling. Of ducking whenever there was thunder. The smell of green timber always brought him instantly and across time back memories of the Belgian Woods. As a result of riding troop trains he never liked to watch a train moving out of a station at night and disappearing into the darkness.

`The memories will live with me to the end' said a WWI doughboy. `Many years have passed and have softened the memories but they have not faded and I don't think they ever will' said another. Some have been quoted as remembering their war years were `as if they were in a previous incarnation'. Another is on record as saying `I thought that my memories of the war were overlaid by the day to day business of living. Then, suddenly and without warning, I began to relive the days and nights'.

Some veterans feeling that they are one of a generation specifically marked out from other generations. So many have struggled to try to acclimate to the civilian point of view, and a WWI veteran admitted `When I came back I didn't realize how silent I was about my years of war ... and became silent, or I continued silent'. Many have probably done the same as the soldier who said: `How many of us take out a special file of ours, collected from our personal experience in war, secretely taken out when no one is present, from which lost youth and lost friends may be remembered with tears?' Families suffer as well. In studies of a WWI sample 12% of widows died within a year; another 14% saw the ghost of the deceased and 39 % still felt the presence of their lover or husband.

`A singular fact about modern war is that it takes charge. Doing what has to be done to win, men perform acts that alter the very soil in which society roots are nourished'. And that quote is from no 20th century war, but Bruce Catton writing of the Civil War.

Due to our unique geography- Canada, Mexico as neighbors and two oceans and a gulf --Americans are lucky. Yet his same geographical isolation has kept the American people largely ignorant of the actualities of war. In an age of voluntary US military service, when we consider the patriotism of American warriors and their families distinct from that of the nation, the citizenry reveres the sacrifice of the military but, in the absence of a draft, often candidly acknowledges its detachment from war and the plight of the ordinary soldier. As Paul Fussell writes: `war is tragic and ironic and beyond any literary or philosophic analysis, and especially in America the meaning of war seems inaccessible'. Matthew Brady's exposition of the dead at Antietam in a NYC gallery in 1863, the coverage of Vietnam on television, and the September 11th attacks can be seen as outliers to this, each profoundly shocking the nation. The only war Americans really ever saw was Vietnam; and what can be argued is that Americans recoiled then from the very vision and reality of war itself- not so much because of a debate as to whether communism should or should not flourish in South East Asia. Many have often wondered what would have occurred if there had been a film crew at Gettysburg or Normandy or Saipan. As we know, images of the current wars today are heavily censored and again most Americans are kept blissfully ignorant as to what the reality of war is.

During World War Two pictures of dead American soldiers were exceedingly rare. Even in one of the seminal books of my childhood, Life Magazine Goes to War, published in 1977, there were only four pictures of dead Americans. They are intact, and appear to be sleeping. Even 32 years after the war it still appears that the nation did not want to face the realities of war. One of the quote unquote `lessons' of the Vietnam War was not to show war again to the American people. Besides the `embedded' reporters covering the Iraq war, the American people have been presented with a sanitized version of recent conflicts. Even the pictures of flag draped caskets arriving at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland have been few and far between.

It can be asserted that the unique American fascination with technology- with the civilian assumption that that alone can win wars- also complicates realistic understanding of the exigencies of war. As veterans can tell you, that is somewhat true- Hiroshima being an example- but all wars are decided by infantry, of boots on the ground, the same maxim of all wars stretching well back the first one ever waged.

There is understandably much talk about `exit strategies' today. To date, it can be said that even our exit strategy from WWII is yet complete; thousands of American troops are still in Germany, thousands are off the coast of Japan- 67 years after the conflict; the exit strategy from the Korean War is incomplete, as thousands more American soldiers are still in the Korean peninsula. In every war it is said with hope that it will be `over by Christmas' and each time the populace has been severely disappointed. Indeed, the current conflict in Afghanistan is America's longest war.

You may note even the sanitized terms and euphemisms used in this speech itself which borrows from a rich literary tradition. And as any vet will tell you, terms like a `fighting withdrawal' and `rearguard action' are just as murderous as any frontal attacks. The use of term `acceptable' losses, as if loss of any human life is somehow acceptable. The phrase `turning point' in a war- as if it is an interception in a football game or a key home run in the bottom of the 9th. Of the term `lessons' of war, as if sitting peacefully in a warm ,cozy classroom school, centered on positive self-improvement, not a bloodbath of a battlefield. Or `friendly fire' which maims just as the unfriendly. Harmless visions of `sport'- of leisure time- are ubiquitous in civilian descriptions of war. Of reports sent back home of kicking a soccer ball across No Man's Land to launch a frontal assault on the trenches, as if some sort of game.

There is an interesting theory as to Why America Fights. It has three main points, and perhaps gives American Wars `Meaning'- if war itself can have any meaning.

Point One. All the wars occur when there is interruption of trade.

For example:

The American Revolution the British Navigation Acts which strangled American trade.

The War of 1812- impressment of American sailors and seizure of American vessels engaged with trade with Europe.

The Mexican War- to gain the Pacific ports of California, to complete the dream since Columbus of trade with the riches of Asia.

The Civil War- control of the Mississippi River to strangle the Confederacy and to open the American West to free trade and to defeat slavery, a system hostile to free trade.

And The Spanish American War- to solidify the same trade routes to Asia and the Caribbean.

In World War One- engagement in that war due to the sinking of American ships engaged with trade with Europe.

American entry into WWII was precipitated by the attack on the American Navy protecting trade routes to Asia.

The Cold War- to defeat an ideology hostile to capitalism and free trade.

And recent wars in the Middle East, to, among other things, control access to the predominant fuel of transportation and engine of free trade in the late 19th, all of the 20th and now the 21st century.

Although appearing coldly economic theory, free trade is the most consistent benevolent spread of free ideas, religion, technology, innovation, and enlightenment, in sum the whole past, present and future of human progress, the product of a free society, and with the goal of an open free global one as well. Borderless freedom. For all. The Defeat of Slavery. Fascism. Communism. Terrorism. In total, the greatest malevolent threats invented in all of human history. All worth stopping.

This has entailed enormous expenditure of young American lives.

Point Two, as to Why America Fights, is that in every war the goal is to overthrow a dictator or an otherwise authoritarian ruler.

Men in war will usually tell you they fight for the man in the foxhole with them-many servicemen feel emotionally more at home with their comrades than even with family members, who have not share their experience as soldiers and thus do not understand them. Such camaraderie is not a romanticized military myth- it is a social environment that outstrips all rival environments. And yet in an abstract sense, the Third Point as To Why America Fights is that we have been fighting for Democracy as well.

Of all the ideas produced by mankind, one that protects the dignity, rights and property of the individual, where individuals can elect- and most importantly --remove their leaders is the most revolutionary progressive idea ever. It is an unassailable truth and one that ultimately appeals to all humanity and is the noblest of endeavors, and will be forever.

And an idea about dissent towards War, spectacularly visible during the Vietnam War - there has been significant opposition to each war in US History. And dissent an integral function of Democracy. And no veteran should feel that this in any way detracts from gratitude and respect of the country on at least some level to their sacrifice.

In the Revolution 1/3 of the country were Loyalist and another third at best neutral. None other than John Adams said that.

In the War of 1812 an entire political party, the Federalists, the distant ancestor of today's Republican Party, was against the war and New England attempted to secede from the Union.

In the Mexican War the North in its entirety was against the war as the war for the spread of slavery.

In the Civil War there was discussion of New York seceding from the Union and an entire party- the Democrats- as an antiwar party.

In the Spanish American war such giants as Andrew Carnegie, creator modern industrialism, and Mark Twain, the narrator and bard of the American story, were against the war as leading lights of an august group of powerful Americans that lobbied against the war.

In WWI German and Irish Americans- the largest group of immigrants in the mid-19th century- very much questioned our alliance with Britain.

In WWII none other than the most famous personage in the world- Charles Lindbergh-led the America First movement- popular on many college campuses- that was completely against US entry into WWII.

Korea was the most unpopular war ever in American History at the time.

Vietnam has become the historical cliche of an unpopular war. But as we see today, with a deeply polarized population over the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, antiwar sentiment is as present as it always has been.

These facts put everything into perspective.

There is no such thing as getting used to combat. Studies have unequivocally showed that all soldiers break down if in combat long enough and psychiatric casualties are inevitable as physical wounds in war.

The biggest period of drug addiction in American History was not the 1960s', but the 1860's- specifically the period 1865 to 1900, due to the opium consumed by a physically and mentally scarred populace as a result of the Civil War. In 1866, one fifth of the Mississippi state budget went to the purchase of artificial limbs. This of course belies yet another Vietnam War myth.

The gospel of 600,000 dead in the Civil War- a 120 year plus theory - was conclusively recalculated just this past year. It was revised upward to 750,000, a 25% increase. This results in seeing at least 37,000 more widows because of this new calculation here, and 90,000 more orphans. The fact the math was so wrong for so long says something about us- I am just not sure what.

The total participation of soldiers as percentage of population of all American wars is give or take 5%.

In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, 2,333,972 American military personnel had been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or both.

At the moment 0.75 percent to be exact of the country's population is a member of the military. The future of the entire nation is in the hands of an overworked vast minority. Never was so much owed by so many to so few. Nothing has changed since Winston Churchill of course uttered that in the midst of WWII.

And we must remember wars are often fought by boys, and now girls, not quite adults yet. Poignantly, the eternal most common cry among the wounded in The Civil War, WWI and II was one word: `Mother'.

There is no romance to War. None, as any veteran will tell you. One theory is that since the writing of the Old Testament there has been a total of 11 days of peace in total, where there was no war occurring anywhere on earth. We can therefore assume that War is a constant, and that the future will always produce even more veterans and we must learn how to treat and honor them.

While engaging in the most evil mankind can devise, each serviceman has striven for, as Lincoln put it, to realize the better angels of all our natures.

I am happy to say that you can visit two New Canaan High School juniors today after the ceremony who outside of Dunkin Donuts collecting donations for the Wounded Warrior project. This should give us hope for the future.

And I conclude with that organization's credo to civilians: It Is Our Turn to Serve.