Ninety-Eight years ago, this day, began the American century. The center of the world shifted. President Woodrow Wilson was now the most important person on earth. At the other end of the spectrum of global significance were the soldiers, including my grandfathers. One of them was lying in a British hospital in France, wounded in both legs (he would lose one). The other may have also been in a hospital. He had been gassed, we know, but not how badly or when–he would never talk about it.
Grandfather Barlow later became a lawyer, serving for a time as Public Defender in Gallia County, Ohio. By the time the Veterans Administration was founded in 1930, he was already working with veterans’ affairs (possibly for the Veterans’ Bureau that preceded the VA), his passion since his days of recovery at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC in 1919. He had left Gallipolis for Cleveland and Brecksville in northern Ohio, where he said his door at the VA was always opened to veterans, no matter the time or reason. He was also quite active in the American Legion, involved, over the years, in at least five different posts.
Like his father-in-law, my father never talked much about his service (most of the action he saw was on Leyte Island in the Philippines in late 1944 and early 1945). Nor was either of them ever active in veterans organizations or causes. Neither cared to be honored or to see their service mentioned.
On election day earlier this week, I believe we began to see the real close of the American century with the election of a president who will be unable to sustain the global centrality of the United States–whose goal (despite claiming to want to make the country great “again”) is to wall the US off from the rest of the world. On the same day, the book I compiled in honor of my grandfathers and their fellow soldiers in the A.E.F. appeared (my copies arrived yesterday). Theirs was the generation that brought the U.S. directly into world affairs to a degree and with a centrality that certainly shocked Europe, if not the rest of the global community. The juxtaposition of the two events, for me, is somewhat ironic and certainly sad.
To all who have served this country, my thanks. Today, we think mainly of the veterans, but many others have and do also serve the United States, and in ways sometimes as dangerous and as significant. These include our police officers, firefighters and even the Peace Corps Volunteers who bring knowledge of the strengths and possibilities of America to people across the world. While we thank our veterans today, we should not forget these others. They, too, serve and help keep our country great.