The picture haunted me, because I wondered what a similar pose reflecting a commander from our times might look like a century hence. His khaki-green Army uniform was impeccably orderly, the gaze so steely toward the mission. The man posing as Gen. John J. Pershing of Missouri was a backward time traveler. How would the commander of our time appear; would the eyes be so certain?
Many of us get our electric service from the Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative. Thus we get Rural Missouri, a totally excellent magazine distributed statewide to rural electric cooperative members, although the times have changed and many of us live more urban than rural.
Luckily, good stories and photos are timeless.
A fine photo of General Pershing’s stand-in appeared on the cover of Rural Missouri this month because of the Veterans Day holiday on Wednesday. Pershing, the American troop commander in Europe during World War I, was from Missouri. He was not only a West Point graduate but also a career Army man, so certainly he must have trod the grounds at Fort Leavenworth some time during his career and perhaps he passed through Platte County.
Pershing, born in 1860, came of age in the years following the Civil War. He lived to see America help the rest of the free world win World War II.
But I think he’d be startled at how many things that seemed so certain in his day are viewed differently today.
Pershing’s army career began in the 1880s with operations that included actions against Apache Indians in the Southwest. He was in South Dakota during the infamous massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee. He is credited with helping to deport “renegade” Cree Indians to Canada.
Pershing gained some fame from battling with locals as America colonized the Philippines.
Gen. Pershing would likely be surprised at how today the genocide of Native Americans is no longer celebrated, but rather their heritage is.
But that’s not what haunts me about the re-enactor photo. I’m struck by the simplicity implicit in the pose. The pose looks like the man is gazing at men with rifles, tanks, machine guns and barbed wire — your standard warfare wares for a century.
The veterans of our current times may seem very different when time’s passing has earned them a place as nostalgia on a magazine cover. The wars and the fronts they are fought on are not as clear now.
Uniforms are not uniform. Roles and duties are more complex. The phrase, “a man in uniform,” echoes from my childhood. Children of today will think of women in uniform as well as men. Moms say difficult goodbyes to children for overseas postings, just like the men.
A sharp shooting eye may not be the most important skill on the front lines now. Hand-eye coordination for rapid-fire use of a laptop computer, or a cell phone, or a tablet, may be more critical in some combat situations in today’s conflicts.
We probably have Armed Forces people living in Platte County today who are vital via Fort Leavenworth and their day jobs there to men and women serving in harm’s way around the globe. They will have successes, and they will have mistakes and defeats.
For many, their minds will be heavy years from now when they’re asked to stand up and be honored in a Veteran’s Day ceremony at a high school gymnasium, on a courthouse square or in a military cemetery.
We honor veterans because the world can be a harsh, unforgiving and conflicted place, but they have served to preserve peaceful places for us to live in a prosperous fashion. Pershing, like all generals, was a product of his times. May our view to Veterans Day always be forward as well as backward, with the goal of peace as a constant amid an otherwise ever-changing world.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.