If anybody were reading this blog, I'd be getting flames just for the title. But let me explain exactly what I mean. Veterans' Day started out as Armistice Day, marking the moment when World War I, the War to End All Wars, ended across Europe at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. WWI killed the flower of an entire generation in England, France, Germany and elsewhere in particularly horrible ways. Trench warfare, mustard gas, and shell shock (now called post traumatic stress) left many, many more permanently disabled and unfit for work, marriage, life itself. Afterwards, world leaders swore "Never again!" as they've done so many times before. Then World War II came along and Armistice Day became Veterans' Day, because it turned out not to be the war to end all wars, just the first of a pair (hopefully not a series).
Now, my dad was a WWII vet, a career Air Force non-com who spent 20 years in the service and came out as a Master Sergeant and retired as a line chief. During the war, he was stationed in Panama, North Africa, England, and finally Germany, as a belly gunner and one of the grunts on the ground who kept the Berlin Airlift running and maintained an American presence after the war. He didn't talk much about his experiences, and to hear him tell it, much of it was a big pub crawl. But every now and then he would let slip that he had seen things that changed him: fellow ball turret gunners hosed out of their stations after they'd been strafed. German children starving and the American troops giving away their rations to them; German peasants who went from enemies to friends overnight. When the massacre at My Lai came to light, Dad watched the news reports about it with a fascination that, in hindsight, told me he'd seen similar things happen during his service: kids tossing grenades at soldiers, and soldier's retaliating. He wasn't unsympathetic to Calley and his troops, but I remember him turning away from the trial one night, and stomping off, muttering "how can that bastard look in the mirror and shave every day?"
So I'm not entirely unsympathetic to or ignorant of what soldiers experience. I grew up in a military household attached to an Air Force base where there were nuclear weapons. We used to joke that we'd be the news everyone else saw if the Cold War became a hot one. At the time, that seemed a more pleasant alternative than the resulting nuclear winter. It was a possibility always in the back of our minds, despite two devastating World Wars and countless minor ones. As if we had learned nothing. We hadn't. And the change from Armistice Day to Veterans day proves that.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on the battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veteran's Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans' Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don't want to throw away any sacred things.
Armistice Day was a holiday in the old sense of the word, a holy day, a day when people gave thanks the war was over and remembered their dead. Traditionally, especially in England, which was particularly hard-hit by WWI because it's such a small country, Armistice Day was observed with 2 minutes of silence to honor the 20 million war dead. Poppies became a symbol of the day thanks to Canadian Lt.-Col. John McCrae who scribbled the poem "In Flanders Fields" on a scrap of paper braced on his friend's back during a lull in the bombing.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.— Lt.-Col. John McCrae
Armistice Day was a reminder that people die during war. That it devastates individuals, families, nations, the world. Veterans' Day has morphed from honoring the dead and reaffirming the idea that we should not go to war, if at all possible, to honoring the living culture of war in the persons of the surviving soldiers.
The third stanza of "In Flanders Fields" has been used in a propagandistic way on recruitment posters, but what's often overlooked is the extreme awareness of mortality in it. The trenches of WWI were brutal places, where death could come in an instant from being buried alive or from a sniper's bullet. Just as often the trenches killed their occupants through sheer misery and disease. Men dreaded the trenches because they knew going over the top was an almost certain death sentence, and that's how the war was fought, foot by foot across No Man's Land. Germany was the aggressor in this war, and that breaking faith McCrae speaks about is not just a call to fight, but a call to win, and eventually, to stop the war and the aggressor. Only that makes the sacrifice worthwhile.
In 1918, no one could escape the visible evidence of the results of war: the ruins, the vast cemeteries, the walking wounded, the maimed, the fact that so many men were just . . . missing. Twenty million people, mostly men, died in WWI. Now, we've made a distinct effort to hide the results of war We don't see the coffins come home, we don't see the funerals. We don't see the ruins, the rocketfire, the wailing of civilians. The government has already said "Fuck Vets" by providing them with substandard medical care and screwing many of them out of the benefits they've earned under fire. What's important in the most recent wars is that there's enough cannon fodder to place in harm's way to accomplish whatever the point of this war is. The one thing every good soldier wants, eventually, is to be safely unemployed or, at very least, not to be sent off on some stupid and useless sortie to die for no good reason. Armistice Day was to remind people of that fact, too.
We've forgotten that the point of war is, ostensibly, to make the world safe for peace. War is not a political or economic strategy, it's a failure of diplomacy. And that simple fact should not be celebrated.