In September my wife and I and another couple visited France to follow the footsteps of my friend's grandfather, Sgt. Ira Scull, and my wife's grandfather, Pvt. Liege Sedlaczeck, both World War I U.S. Army veterans. On a peaceful sunny day we stood above a beautiful champagne grape vineyard overlooking the Marne River and the quaint village of Saint Agnan while my friend read a section from Scull's company history.
They fought alongside a French division to gain combat experience. They learned to dig trenches, to cut through razor sharp rolls of wire, to follow rolling artillery barrages ahead of them, to counter criss-crossing machine gun fire, to attack with bayonets, and to identify deadly gas shells quickly. In July 1918, Saint Agnan would be their first test as an independent American unit.
German soldiers, like the French and British, were exhausted after four years of bloodshed, but the German high command knew millions of Americans were headed across the Atlantic. They launched a last gasp offensive before fresh American troops were combat ready. The Marne River marked the western edge of that offensive, and French forces were hanging by a thread. If the Americans didn't succeed, the Germans would be in Paris.
Scull's combat engineer company was beside the first wave of attacking infantry. The Americans emerged from a tree line just south of a roadway. They ran across a wheat field that offered little protection from the wall of steel enemy guns hurled toward them.
Men fell all around them. Some screamed in pain. Some spewed blood from gashed torsos and dismembered limbs. Others died from less visible wounds and lay quietly as if in a deep sleep. Still, the doughboy line surged forward. Through the hellish carnage, noise, smoke and confusion they broke through the German lines, clamored across a maze of enemy trenches and pushed into the rear areas, capturing hundreds of prisoners, provisions and artillery. The enemy retreat continued, and Germany signed an armistice four months later on Nov. 11, 1918. Nearly 117,000 doughboys died during those months of fighting.
They fought the "war to end all wars" and to "make the world safe for democracy." To honor their noble cause, Congress established Veterans Day on Nov. 11. Despite the horrendous casualties, the doughboys' sacrifices had minimal lasting impact. America retreated to its shores, allowing the victorious European nations to make a mess of post-war policy. The result was World War II 21 years later. So much for the war to end all wars.
A few days after visiting Saint Agnan, I knelt on flawlessly manicured grass among 14,000 perfectly aligned grave markers in the Meuse Argonne American Cemetery. Those young Americans sacrificed everything, but for what?
Every president should ask if American freedom and national interests are worth our national treasure and the blood of our sons and daughters before committing troops. Then, they should act, regardless of political consequences. That hasn't always been the case. For instance, the idealistic and politically astute Woodrow Wilson in 1917 neglected his earlier campaign promise to keep America out of the European war. Similarly, since World War II, we've ventured into fruitless or seemingly endless wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East. In pulling our troops from Syria recently, President Trump finally said, "Enough!"
Political cartoonists, congressmen, partisan military officers and news pundits decry his actions — that's politics. However, American combat troops from Saint Agnan to Syria understand and appreciate a president who respects their sacrifices and acts accordingly. That is leadership.
Roger Smith, a local author, is a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press.