(Note: November 11 is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I)
Many years ago, I read a semi-autobiographical novel called Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Part of this book deals with Vonnegut’s very real experience as a U.S. soldier stationed in Dresden, Germany during that city’s bombardment by Allied forces in 1945. In the book, Vonnegut gives his opinion on America’s holiday every November 11: Veterans Day.
“Armistice Day has become Veterans Day. Armistice Day was sacred, Veterans’ 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.”
The “truth” I mention in the title is that Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, established at the end of World War I as an international day of peace. The First World War, of course, was referred to as “the war to end all wars.”
Our wars, sadly, didn’t end. Following a second world war, Armistice Day was pointedly renamed Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth. There, the renaming was designed to commemorate British soldiers of all wars who died in the line of duty (the equivalent of America’s Memorial Day). In Britain, Remembrance Day is not a public holiday, and Armistice Day is now increasingly recognized there, concurrently with Remembrance Day.
In the United States, on June 1, 1954 following the Korean War, the Congress also replaced the word “Armistice.” November 11 is now known as Veterans Day, a public holiday honoring U.S. veterans. It is not to be confused with Memorial Day, intended to honor dead American soldiers.
France and Belgium, invaded by German ground forces in both world wars, still recognize Armistice Day.
Some of you are undoubtedly thinking “He’s going somewhere with this.” Well, you’re right. There’s another part to the “truth” in my essay title.
While I won’t go as far as Kurt Vonnegut in declaring a public holiday as “sacred,” even one devoted to recognizing peace, I do see his point.
One has to ask (well, “one” doesn’t have to, but I do)… Why was a day intended to commemorate peace shifted to a day to commemorate soldiers (in the U.S.)?
Rory Fanning, a U.S. veteran, and the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America, has an idea why. He says Veterans Day is “less about celebrating veterans than easing the guilty conscience of warmongers.” (The italics are mine.)
“Armistice Day was sacred because it was intended to evoke memories of fear, pain, suffering, military incompetence, greed and destruction on the grandest scale for those who had participated in war, directly and indirectly. Armistice Day was a hallowed anniversary because it was supposed to protect future life from future wars.
“Veterans Day, instead, celebrates ‘heroes’ and encourages others to dream of playing the hero themselves, covering themselves in valor. But becoming a ‘hero’ means going off to kill and be killed in a future war—or one of our government’s current, unending wars.”
As with Vonnegut, I don’t totally agree with Fanning. I’m not convinced that everyone who supports a Veterans Day is a “warmonger.”
And I don’t intend to slight U.S. military veterans. Many, including some in my immediate family (and a good number of my ancestors), served to protect the freedoms we too frequently take for granted.
But I do agree that America is too often too quick to fling around the term “hero.” And I’m suspicious of the shadowy forces that buried Armistice Day and, instead, hoisted Veterans Day up the flagpole. Perhaps Fanning is correct in his belief that Veterans Day is yet one more salve that the U.S. employs to make it easier to enter—or, in the case of Vietnam and Iraq, to start—the next war.
We need fewer heroes and more peacekeepers. “Armistice Day” and “Veterans Day” aren’t just words. They also carry meaning.
Tonight, there will be no war movies for me on Turner Classic Movies. Instead, I plan to celebrate Armistice Day: an international day of peace.
Header photo: Royal Engineers No. 1 Printing Co. / Getty Images
16 thoughts on “The Truth about Veterans Day”
Yes. Vonnegut clarifies why peace matters, in all his amazing books.
Thanks, Cindy. He was a great writer.
A lovely piece, thank you!
You’re welcome, Nick, thanks for commenting!
Good article, Pete. As a proud USAF veteran, I am troubled by two things: the incoherent U.S. foreign policy that has been the rationale for sending our troops into harms way since 9/11; and our society’s casual acceptance of leaving the fighting to a very small percentage of our population. We’re in the 17th year of our longest war ever, in Afghanistan, that ‘graveyard of Empires’, and yet few civilians can find Afghanistan on a map, let alone think about it for more than a minute. American take it for granted that someone else will step up to do the fighting. They put magnetic yellow ribbons on their bumpers that say “Support the Troops” as if to signal their virtuous connection to something for which they haven’t a clue. Meanwhile, our leaders in Washington play loose with the lives of our troops, and yet so few of them have served. Worth reading: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2018/11/11/honor_our_veterans_with_a_better_foreign_policy_138608.html
I couldn’t have said it better, Tad. Sobering words from a vet. I used to cringe whenever I heard the word “draft,” but maybe we need this again. A draft (without loopholes) won’t end war, but might give us greater pause next time our cavalier leaders decide we need to shoulder muskets.
Thanks for another enlightening article. I did not realize the significance of changing the name. I always assumed it was to make it clearer what we were celebrating but now I know it was the opposite of that.
A day celebrating peace would be much appreciated. From here on out when I honor the veterans I will also celebrate those rare times of no wars our country has been involved with. I must add more stories about peace and fewer ads on Veterans Day would be a good place to start in honoring the real meaning behind the day.
Until I read Vonnegut’s book (in my 20s) I didn’t know that Veterans Day used to be Armistice Day. I’m sure the vast majority of Americans are unaware, and what both these days were/are intended to honor and perpetuate. The older I get, the more I realize this country – as great as it is in many ways – has a LOT of little secrets that those “shadowy forces” would like to keep secret.
how how how do you manage to succinctly put words to feeling deeper than deep? Once again, I am deeply moved by your observations of FACTS and how these facts relate (sometime painfully) to our world. Celebrating a day of peace indeed sounds like a capital idea. Jolly good, Pete my friend. Jolly good.
Thanks, Rock. I don’t think my stuff is all that good! Maybe I just like busting myths. (Or what I perceive as myth.) Whatever it is…I appreciate your “jolly” nice words.
Good piece Pete. I think I’ve had this one sorted out from a young age. My old man explained it pretty well to me when I was a kid. He served in the Navy during the second world war. It changed him for the rest of his life.
Thanks, Mr. Head. Your old man sounds like a good mentor. Mine was too, though he never talked about his war experiences. Not that he was traumatized (he didn’t see combat), he just did what was required and felt it was no big deal.
My old man had his demons (seeing action didn’t help) but he had integrity and compassion to burn.
Nicely written piece, Pete. I always struggle with Veteran’s Day as a holiday here for the very reasons you illuminate. Bringing back the draft as a solution to those who play fast and loose with the lives of military personnel is an interesting idea (even though it scares the crap out of me). I would not have thought of it. My dad was in the Navy in WWII and, when he was in the last years of his life, he talked to me a lot about how terrible it was to send young people away to fight at the whim of old privileged men in office. His ideas about peace and war had evolved quite a bit over the years after he served in a war himself.
Hi Kathleen. Yes, that’s what it’s about, “evolving.” Some do, some (unfortunately) don’t. The draft comment I made to Tad was inspired by another blogger, an anti-war Vietnam veteran, who suggested in one of his posts that it would be a good deterrent, particularly after the repercussions of ‘Nam. The idea is a Damocles sword, though: I would definitely not want my son drafted.
Thanks for commenting, and Happy Thanksgiving!
Happy Thanksgiving to you good!