A Covenant of Peace – November 11, 1918

There is a little cemetery on the outskirts of Waregem, Belgium, where over 400 American servicemen are buried or commemorated. When the sky is clear, the white marble headstones appear to radiate light across the neatly-trimmed lawn. Most of the headstones are cut in the shape of a cross. Others are of the Star of David.

This cemetery is a memorial to those who fought and died in the area known as Flanders, near the end of World War I. It is a memorial to them. But it is also a memorial to the end of a horrendous conflict—one that took 18 million military and civilian lives, and wounded another 23 million.

There is even a poem written in the voice of those who died in that conflict: In Flanders Field, by John McCrae, a Canadian Lieutenant Colonel and surgeon. He wrote the verses in 1915 after witnessing the death of a close friend. Three years later and before the end of the war, he died of pneumonia. He is buried a hundred miles west of this cemetery, on the far northern coast of France.

Part of his poem is a call to arms, spoken from those who had died to those who would come after:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high . . .

World War I formally ended just before noon on November 11, 1918.

When President Wilson delivered his Fourteen Points speech—largely composed of the terms outlined by the French Supreme Commander, Marshall Ferdinand Foch—he began with a call to open covenants of peace. The speech specified full cooperation of all warring nations. It contained stern language about the reestablishment of international boundaries and reparations by the Germans. The tone was dire. But the policy also contained positive and forward-looking language. Foch and Wilson had sprinkled many hopeful words throughout the document: peace, freedom, equality, safety, confidence, restoration, security, integrity, healing.

– – –

This year, Veterans Day marks the ninety-ninth anniversary of that armistice. The German Empire and the Central Powers no longer threaten. John McCrae’s foe of In Flanders Fields is defeated.

But his words still resonate today. There is a different kind of foe—one that seems to bring conflict and competition where neither is justified. War necessitates competition and conflict; the good guys have to stand against the bad guys. But all the world’s wars seem to have conditioned us to believe that competition is appropriate in all arenas.

It is not. There are places that should be a refuge from competition and from competition’s reflection in the distorted glass of ego: conflict.

The home, the house of worship, the school hallway—those are a few that come to mind.

If we express a competitive nature—through our ego, through pride, through fear—at the dinner table or in Sunday school or in a group of friends, then we endanger those around us. We put them and ourselves at risk—the zero-sum philosophy leads to conflict, and we risk losing lives.

– – –

Nearly three years ago, I stood in the little cemetery in Belgium. Rain had fallen in the early morning, but the clouds were breaking apart. The white marble headstones absorbed and reflected the intermittent sunlight. I don’t have relatives buried there. The place is sacred to me for other reasons. I had written McCrae’s entire poem on a little piece of paper and I read it quietly to myself as I stood among the crosses and Stars of David.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 We are the dead. Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

On the headstones I discovered the names of two infantrymen from Montana—where I live now.

Pvt. Harold E. Clark, 361st Infantry, 91st Division. Private Clark died November 2, 1918, nine days before the end of World War I.

Sergt. Emil Lang, 362nd Infantry, 91st Division. Sergeant Lang died October 31, 1918, eleven days before the end of World War I.

I took some photos in the cemetery and then drove with my family out of Belgium and south to Normandy. We arrived in the late afternoon. The tide was out and we walked along the grey beaches where the Canadians and British and Americans landed on June 6, 1944—to begin the end of World War II in Europe.

– – –

On this ninety-nine-year anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, and on this Veterans Day—where we honor military veterans—my hope is that we set aside the instruments of conflict where conflict doesn’t belong, and as Marshall Foch and President Wilson said, let us find ways to open covenants of peace with each other.

 

 

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