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World War I came to an official close on Nov. 11, 1918.

In a solemn observation across Arkansas and around the country, bells will ring 11 times at 11 a.m. on that day, on Veterans Day.

Such a commemoration is perfectly appropriate -- on the 11th day of the 11th month -- 100 years after it all ended.

But on such an anniversary, it would be tragic indeed if we had a formal ceremony but failed to reflect upon the importance of what it all means.

History has a way of teaching us many valuable lessons, and sometimes those lessons can be appreciated during quiet moments on special occasions.

On Sunday, Nov. 11, we have an opportunity for one of those special moments of reflection.

More than 100 years ago, the United States had no desire to be entangled in the affairs of Europe.

When World War I broke out in 1914, the feeling in America was that Europe needed to work out its own differences. (Of course, it was called the Great War initially; no one could name it World War I without even knowing there would be a World War II.)

Americans were concerned about the events there, to be sure, but the prevailing mindset was that things that took place all the way across the Atlantic Ocean were not matters that required direct intervention on the part of the United States.

And a generation after that, the feeling was much the same.

There was no desire to send young American men off to war in 1939 and in 1940, even though Adolf Hitler was trying to secure all of Europe for himself, and even though Japan was marching against almost all of southeastern Asia and laying claim to the South Pacific.

In fact, throughout most of history, Americans have not looked for trouble. But on more than one occasion, the fight came to them.

In 1915, when German submarines sank the British ship, the Lusitania, and 128 Americans perished, opinion in the U.S. began to turn against Germany in the Great War.

In the months that followed, there were more casualties, and America was gradually drawn into the conflict that would eventually become known as World War I.

And about 26 years later, in December 1941, Pearl Harbor galvanized American resolve to help lead the way to victory in World War II.

And in another era -- one that many Americans still recall vividly -- the events of Sept. 11, 2001, brought the U.S. into action against terroristic activities worldwide.

When all is said and done, however, when the country is given a clear-cut choice between isolationism or involvement, most Americans, to this day, prefer staying out of a fight.

From Vietnam in the 1960s until now, the posture of federal leadership in Washington has been to help police the world, but there is still something deep within the culture and the psyche of America that wants to steer clear of trouble.

In short, America's default is set for peace.

But history has also taught us that war can be one major event away and American citizens, for the most part, understand that.

That is one major lesson that we can take away from what happened a 100 years ago, but there is much more.

We could learn much about heroics and courage from Sergeant Alvin York. We could learn much about leadership and organization from General John J. Pershing. We could learn about literary work from the writings of Ernest Hemingway, who had much of his early endeavors inspired by the war and by his experiences there. We could learn much of the struggles of the war from the German perspective in Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front."

And we could see how war causes us to contemplate the meaning of life and the perplexity of death by examining the poem from World War I known as "In Flanders Fields."

We could also learn much from the implications of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought an official end to the war.

To not look ahead is to march blindly towards an uncertain destination. But to not look back -- to not listen to the lessons of history -- is to have no understanding of our journey at all.

• • •

David Wilson, Ed.D., of Springdale, is a former high school principal and is the communications director for the Transit and Parking Department at the University of Arkansas. He has other articles online at Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 11/07/2018

Print Headline: Solemn reflections on World War I

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