Amidst the flag-waving, the thanking of veterans and the wearing of poppies today, I thought it would be appropriate to say a few words on the historical context of the day we’re celebrating, which of course is the 95th anniversary of the cease-fire that ended World War I. In the United States, most of the emphasis today has been on honoring those who served in past (and present) wars, and I think that’s entirely appropriate. I have noticed, however, that among the people whose blogs and Twitter accounts I follow, British, Canadians and Australians seem to place more emphasis on the historical roots of Armistice/Veteran’s Day. I’ve seen a few recitations of “In Flanders Fields” on Twitter today, and none have been from Americans. The United States’s experience in World War I was qualitatively different than almost all of the other major participants in the war, and that has shaped how we remember it. Americans living today are probably more likely to associate Veterans Day with the more recent conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan than the First World War.

It’s hard for us to understand today just how traumatic World War I was. A brutal mechanized war, the first world-scale conflict to arise after the Industrial Revolution, stunned everybody with its ferocity, its length and the deep wounds it inflicted on the societies who fought it. When the guns went silent at 11AM on November 11, 1918, large portions of northern France resembled the surface of the moon. Ten or twelve million people were dead and millions more were wounded physically, psychologically or both. Three empires–German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian–had been toppled and the map of the world completely redrawn. Perhaps most traumatic of all, the myths of the superiority, stability and desirability of Western civilization, embodied in the Victorian era and the ethos of “progress,” were completely discredited. How could the world have gone so insane? How could something like this have happened?

It is this sense of shock and trauma, on a societal level, that I think is the most important take-away lesson from World War I. Say you were a young British man born in 1890. You would have grown up in the reign of Queen Victoria and her son, Edward VII, in a Britain marked by economic expansion, social progress and general prosperity. Your empire, stretching from India to the Falkland Islands, was carefully maintained by social privilege and by naval supremacy. The world was being transformed by railways, telegraphs (and eventually telephones), steamships, electric lights, horseless carriages and the advance of medical science. Entering the prime of your adulthood, in the mid-1910s, who wouldn’t be optimistic about the future?

WWI dead

Then the war would have come, and you would likely spend four years living (or dying) in a muddy trench in France or Belgium, always wet, usually sick, with corpse-eating rats gnawing on the bodies of your friends and “whizz-bangs” (artillery shells) rattling your nerves day and night. That bold new world of telegraphs and electric lights would have become a lethal maze of barbed wire, chattering machine guns, long-range artillery, and chemical weapons attacks. Most disturbingly, you would probably never be able to answer the question, why is this happening? What was World War I really about? Ten million men dying horribly because an Austrian archduke was assassinated–that can’t be the answer. Was it really “to make the world safe for democracy?” Was it to prop up the British Empire? Was it for markets and capital? All of these reasons? None of them? On November 11, 1918, who knew?

This is the difference between World War I and World War II. If you stormed the beach at Normandy or raised the flag on Iwo Jima, you probably at least had a decent idea of why you were doing it–it was about Hitler, fascism, tyranny, aggression, those sorts of things. World War I had no such moral clarity. When I teach about World War I in my classes, I have a very hard time conveying to students what it was really about. Right or wrong, at least you could say Vietnam was about Communism, Afghanistan about 9/11 and terrorism, and Iraq about [fill in the blank, whatever reason convinces you]. But what was World War I about? If it’s hard for us nearly 100 years later to explain, imagine how hard it must have been if you were there.

Armistice/Veteran’s Day was intended to be a somber holiday, and it should be. Waving flags, wearing poppies on your lapel and thanking veterans for their service clearly is part of it. But thanking those who do the fighting, however ambiguous the reasons they’re fighting, is alone not enough. Why do wars happen? Can they be prevented? What can we do to prevent ourselves from going down this terrible road again? Those are also the questions we should be asking on Armistice Day, even though they require a lot of uncomfortable introspection, and may provoke answers that we don’t like.