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COVID-19 has now officially claimed 668,000 lives worldwide, although the actual number is probably significantly higher. That's two-thirds of 1 million people we're talking about, half of them in just four nations: the United States, Brazil, Great Britain, and Mexico.

If it seems to you that governments have failed, you aren't alone. The latest RealClearPolitics poll average shows 69% of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, with only 23% thinking that things are on the right track.

What precise percentage of this pessimism is due to the pandemic or the lockdown or the economy or police brutality or rioting in places like Portland or just the general rancor of our politics is anybody's guess, but it's safe to say that our elected leaders are not instilling confidence in the voters. Approval of President Trump's handling of the crisis has plummeted, with nearly six in 10 Americans now expressing dissatisfaction with his response. Meanwhile, in a mid-July Gallup poll, 55% of respondents said the coronavirus situation in the United States is getting "a lot worse."

Regular readers of this daily homily know that an underlying theme in my writing is that Americans have faced trouble before -- and almost always have come out stronger after dealing with the crisis at hand. But that lesson doesn't necessarily lessen the pain for those caught in the crucible. I'm thinking of July 30, 1918, and the battlefield death of a brave warrior poet.

* * *

In the summer of 1918, America was on a wartime footing, blissfully unaware of the lethally mutating virus making its way on troop ships back and forth across the Atlantic. At Camp Buell in Lexington, Ky., for instance, new barracks were being erected as new recruits flooded the base. The first graduates of boot camp shipped out on July 4. In mid-July another 216 soldiers boarded trains that would take them east and then on to France.

The War Department was unconcerned with the Spanish Flu, called "the grippe" by those who even knew about it. On July 10, base commanders issued an order prohibiting the sale of "intoxicating liquor" within a half-mile radius of Camp Buell. On this date in 1918, the Army took steps to keep the men away from another kind of intoxicant. Military officials, according to a directive out of Washington, were "hereby authorized, empowered and directed during the present war to do everything … deemed necessary to suppress and prevent the keeping or setting up disorderly house within such distance as [the secretary of war] may deem needful of any military camp."

Although "disorderly house" was a euphemism, its meaning was clear to Lexington authorities: local police began arresting prostitutes who were found loitering in the vicinity of the camp.

Kentucky and military authorities acquiesced to certain distractions, however, including gambling. Horse racing, for instance, thrived not only during World War I but also during the great influenza pandemic of 1918.

That year's Kentucky Derby was held on May 11, the same week Camp Buell opened. In the runup to the 1918 derby, the nation's most famous 3-year-old was Sun Briar. This colt, the 2-year-old champion the year before, was owned by Willis Sharpe Kilmer, a showy newspaper publisher and horse breeder from Binghamton, N.Y. Equal parts marketing genius and charlatan, Kilmer had gotten rich selling an elixir called Swamp Root, which promised to cure digestive problems, obesity, water retention, kidney disease, bladder problems, bowel irregularity, and liver ailments.

Actually, Swamp Root was nothing more than a mild diuretic with enough alcohol to take the edge off one's nerves. But even a salesman as seductive as Willis Kilmer couldn't get the ailing Sun Briar to run that spring, so he purchased an ungainly looking gelding named Exterminator for $10,000.

At odds of 30-to-1, Exterminator defeated favored War Cloud to win the Kentucky Derby. The track was muddy, so some railbirds thought the result a fluke. It wasn't. On June 30, the horse won another race in Kentucky and on July 17, he won in Canada while on his way to becoming America's favorite racehorse. But by the time Exterminator was sent to the post at Saratoga that August, along with War Cloud and Sun Brian, tragedy had struck the extended Kilmer clan.

On July 30, 1918, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, a 31-year-old distant cousin of Exterminator's owner, was fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne when he was felled by a German sniper. Although this  was less than 100 days before the end of the war, it wouldn't be right to say he died in vain: Second Marne was the Kaiser's last great offensive in the war and the Allies' victory there led to the armistice that ended the fighting. The death of this soldier, a prominent Catholic writer who dropped his first name in his byline, would likely be forgotten now, even by many of his own kinsmen, except for the words he left behind, especially a book of verse called "Trees." In it is a poem of the same name:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree

Literary critics then and now found Joyce Kilmer's poems too sentimental -- too sappy, if you'll permit me a pun -- to be taken seriously. The reading public (and at that time, the American public did read) thought otherwise. Schools all over the country were named after the man, and not because of his war record. In the 21st century, Kilmer's ode to trees may have new meaning to a new generation concerned about a warming planet. Environmentalists believe trees are a part of the solution.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon. 

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