The Truth about Veterans Day

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(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.NY Times

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.

Fototeca Storica Nazionale_Getty Images

(Photo: Fototeca Storica Nazionale / Getty Images)

Source links:

https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/11/us-observe-armistice-day-more-comfortable-war-than-peace

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armistice_Day

Header photo: Royal Engineers No. 1 Printing Co. / Getty Images

 

A Boy and a Raccoon

Rascal book

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

Sterling North House

Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be just a children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

***

North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

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(Author photo)