(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