It was supposed to be "the war to end all wars."
And 100 years ago today – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – the world observed that promise with a moment of silence, followed by an ecstasy of celebration.
After 1,564 days of bloodshed, the Great War – the conflagration that eventually came to be known as World War I – finally came to an end. In its wake, tens of millions had been killed, both soldiers and civilians, including 116,516 Americans.
By 1918, more than 100 countries had been drawn into the conflict. In Europe alone the belligerents included Albania, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia and Turkey.
America was a relatively latecomer to the party, entering the war April 6, 1917, as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”
While Wilson’s Utopian vision never came to pass, world peace did reign supreme, if but for a moment. Yet that moment already was fleeting. The final peace treaty, signed six months later in Versailles, planted the seeds of the next war. Within two decades, the world would again erupt in flames.
Since 1939, there's been barely a day without a major armed conflict occurring somewhere on the planet. And America has ended up becoming involved in almost all of them: World War II, 1941-45; the Korean War; 1950-53; the Vietnam War, 1961-1973; Dominican Republic, 1965; Lebanon, 1982-84; Grenada, 1983; Panama, 1989; the Gulf War, 1991; Somalia, 1993; Bosnia, 1994-95; Kosovo, 1999; the Global War on Terror, 2001 to today; Afghanistan, 2001-2014; the Iraq War, 2003 to 2010; and the war against ISIS, 2014 to today.
Americans can argue about whether our involvement was justified in any of these conflicts, but then again as Americans at least we have the freedom to complain about our government and the officials who lead it.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for folks in countries run by some of our former allies. Bad mouth Russian President Vladimir Putin, and you could end up poisoned. Criticize the Saudi government, and you could end up strangled and dismembered. Say the wrong thing in China, and you could end up disappeared.
Yet freedom of speech has become a two-edged sword in our country.
The anonymity and immediacy of social media now allows Americans to rip on anyone or anything – impartiality, the facts and due process be damned.
President Trump continuously blasts the press as the “Fake News Media” and “the true enemy of the American people,” while at the same time using Twitter as his bully pulpit to mock anyone who crosses him, including Democrats, the FBI, members of his own Cabinet and any Republican who fails to “embrace” him.
The press, for its part, doesn't always draw a clear line between news and opinion. Commentary is fine, but all too often Americans mistake it for fact.
Amid all the hate, anger and confusion, it’s little wonder we've has been split up into a network of warring tribes separated by income, gender, race, age and politics.
Here's the thing about freedom of speech, though. Sometimes you just have to shut the hell up and listen, listen long enough to discern what is true and what isn't.
Here's one truth: we're not as different as politicians, Facebook and cable news would have you believe.
America must have understood that back in 1918 when it came together for a common cause.
Maybe today would be a good day to declare an armistice among ourselves.
• Bill Wimbiscus, former reporter and editor for The Herald-News, has lived in Joliet for 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.