I realized this morning that I now am the legacy holder of memories of someone I knew who fought in World War I. I am a living connection to what now is a ‘holiday’ and ‘history’ for so many.
My grandfather, Edward Arden Sipp, was a first Lieutenant in the newly formed Army Air Service Aircraft Production unit, posted at McCook’s Field in Dayton, OH. With a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, he collaborated with other engineers in creating the first electrical landing lights for planes and heated flight suits for pilots.
Like many German Americans, my grandfather was proud of his heritage yet understood that his loyalty was not owed to the Fatherland but to his new homeland. His patriotism arose from a sense of being an American, a national identity that was still in its formative stages, especially on the world stage.
Legacy of Values
In our family, we celebrated many German traditions with a great deal of pride, but not with nationalistic fervor. The legacies of valuing education, honesty and fairness in dealing with others came out of the experience of being an immigrant and having to contend with religious prejudice. Legacies of adaptation and tolerance came out of the experience of finding ways to fit in and be a contributing member of the community.
These values were never discussed explicitly; we never sat around the dinning room table and said, “Let us speak of things that guide us in our decision-making!” Yet, there is no denying that these values were transmitted through the choices my grandparents made and how they modeled being a good citizen.
To this day, I clearly remember my grandfather explaining why the siren would go off on November 11 at 11:00 am. It marked the moment that the Armistice was signed, and the Germans surrendered. General Pershing was a hero in my home. Woodrow Wilson was considered a mastermind in creating the Lasting Peace.
The Conflict of Now and Then
What served the needs of the moment back in November of 1918 now appears to have been both opportunistic, racist, and dishearteningly cruel. In the days following the end of the War, photographers captured the victory parades and the wasteland left in the War’s aftermath. On review, all we discovered were new ways to kill each other. We did not find ways to end conflict.
History has since revealed the cracks in the patina of those times and heroes. Political fortunes rose and fell. Woodrow Wilson was succeeded by Warren G. Harding and one of the most corrupt administrations this country has seen until recently. General Douglas MacArthur faced down fellow soldiers who marched on Washington to demand the care and compensation promised for their service. Germany descended into chaos and bred hatred and resentment resulting in the rise of Adolf Hitler.
These same issues persist, albeit with different players. They have been repeated in all the conflicts and wars that have followed. Service personnel from World War II, the Korean Conflict, Viet Nam, Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, continue to languish without sufficient resources dedicated to honoring their service and sacrifice. Continued corruption granting contracts to defense manufacturers and the vastly bloated allocations to “defense” spending continue to impact our way of life.
The War to End All Wars
The needless slaughter of so many young men shocked humanity in the waning days of the Edwardian Era. Sadly, it is no longer shocking given what is seen in so much of modern video gaming. Ironically, we now refer to the 1914-1918 slaughter as World War I. World War II followed all too soon. And since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have been waiting for World War III. We seem to have given up hope that we can live together peacefully and instead have surrendered to the inevitability of another war coming in ordinal efficiency.
Are We Doomed to Repeat?
Given our history, one would conclude that humans seem incapable of living together for any length of time in a peaceful and cooperative way. We appear to need to stay perpetually at odds with each other. Our current state of affairs suggests that we have become even more stalwart in our need to defend our respective positions and claim our rights, whatever we define those rights to be.
In accepting the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II, General Douglas MacArthur opined,
Men since the beginning of time have sought peace. Various methods through the ages have been attempted to devise an international process to prevent or settle disputes between nations. From the very start workable methods were found in so far as individual citizens were concerned, but the mechanics of an instrumentality of larger international scope have never been successful. Military alliances, balances of power, Leagues of Nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. The utter destructiveness of war now blocks out this alternative. We have had our last chance. If we will not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature, and all material and cultural developments of the past 2000 years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.
“It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.” What kind of spirit must we possess to accomplish this? Certainly not the one dominating our world today.
Some Questions and Answers
With all the conflict that is now present in our lives, politically, economically, and environmentally, must it be inevitable that we resort to violence? Have we become overly tolerant of suffering? Do we really value the sacrifices our children, siblings, cousins, mothers, fathers, grandparents, et al., made in all the wars and conflicts? And if, so, how are we going to do things differently?
I will answer my own questions. It is not inevitable that we resort to violence. It does take effort to override our developmental circuitry that sees “other” as a threat. But we can (and must) make the effort. We are too tolerant of the suffering of others and have little capacity for our own. This must become better balanced by learning we all share so much more than makes us different. We can remain unique without giving away our humanity. Sadly, too often we give lip service to the sacrifices made when reminded. We need to be more mindful on a daily basis of what we might lose if we do not pay attention. Loss of life, love, and companions with whom we get to enjoy these blessings.
We do things differently by starting with ourselves. Gently and persistently challenging strongly held beliefs and asking where the belief came from, what I use to confirm or support it, and what, if anything, may be a different. We do it by listening rather than shouting at each other.
I treasure the stories my grandfather told me about his experiences in World War I, but more importantly, I treasure the values he left as his legacy – informed patriotism, honoring the sacrifices of those who would defend liberty, taking a stand against corruption, and always attempting to find a way forward without conflict.
So, today, I will face East at the 11th hour and place my hand over my heart and pay silent tribute to all combatants and innocents who have died in war. I will say a prayer that no more sacrifices will need to be made and that we may find a peaceful way to co-exist.