Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Armistice Day

Today, November 11th, used to be known as Armistice Day.

Many of my generation can recite the phrase... "on the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month...". I occasionally wonder how many people know to what event that phrase refers? The thing is, the import and meaning of that day has changed.

An Armistice is defined as an agreement whereby warring parties end their armed engagments. The quote above refers to the end of fighting on the Western Front of The Great War, now known as World War One. November 11th, 1918 was the unofficial end to the war. The paperwork took awhile longer. It always does. Just between the agreement to end the fighting and the arrival of the fabled hour, another 3,000 soldiers were killed in battle. Thousands more were still to succumb to the remains of the conflict.

In both Great Britain and France, a day of remembrance for those who gave their lives in the service of their countries in the war was declared. It became customary to observe 2 minutes of reverent silence in their honor at the 11th hour on Armistice Day.

Part of the celebration in London
the celebration in Paris
 In the United States, something quite remarkable occurred. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11th be a commemoration of the Armistice; "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"

The key phrase is "sympathy with peace". Armistice Day was a celebration of Peace breaking out. It was intended as a day of reflection on the concept of peace and international co-operation.

Soldiers on the Western Front celebrated

Those who think I am off the mark should look no further than the Congress of the United States, when it issued a resolution on Armistice Day in 1926 with the following words;

"Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and

Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples."


In 1938, the U.S. Congress passed an Act which proclaimed the 11th of November a legal holiday: "a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as 'Armistice Day'."[

In 1954, not quite 10 years after the end of World War Two, the Congress of the United States changed the meaning of Armistice Day, basically by doing away with it. The President at the time, a member of the conservative Republican Party, was Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had previously been known to most of the world as the General whose careful planning helped defeat the fascists in Italy and Germany, ending the Second World War on the European continent, and freeing the world from the vile machinations of the Nazis. The idea for the change to honor all Veterans of all of the US wars came from a WWII veteran, who led a delegation to the Capitol to express the idea directly to the President, who had been a man of War. This occurred in the greater context of the Red Scare, the early days of the Cold War; the Army-McCarthy hearings were underway. It was around the same month that the words "Under God" were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance - a recitation required of US school children while saluting the US flag. The Pledge became an official requirement in 1942, after the US was brought into WWII. It had become a contested practice as the clouds of war had gathered over Europe. There were teachers who refused to institute it and quit their profession rather than require the youth of the country to participate in what they regarded as militaristic training. It was originally written by an Admiral who had fought in the Mexican-American war as well as the Civil War. It was then revised by a Baptist minister with socialist leanings.

Americans in London joined the celebration

At any event, while it is fitting that the people who serve their country be honored, a day dedicated to thoughts of peace was turned into a day of commemoration of specifically military service, which in our own day has become, for various reasons, a flag waving celebration of 'warriors' and military service.

Lest we forget, when the bill to allow conscription was passed as we geared up, ummm, prepared for our possible involvement in WWII, there were warnings that we might never get rid of it. Had it not been for conscription, there would have been no standing army to send to Korea, nor to Vietnam. Soldiers of that era were not volunteers. The idea had been promoted that one owed four years of their life and their youth to the government of the geographic bit of space on which they were born.

celebrants in New York City

Now that we have a supposed 'volunteer' army, our military has become a chance for the underclass to get a leg up towards the "better" lifestyle depicted in the movies and on tv. There are many benefits. I have friends and family who served, and whose service was in army camps in Germany, or other non-combat areas. They were able to buy their homes through Federal assistance to veterans. They get healthcare, and a number of other benefits - depending on their geographical location to access them. They are among the first to fly the flag and point out that they "served", even though they never seem to recall the non-combat part. I don't begrudge them their benefits, even though some of them had no choice in the matter.

These days, after our National Guard was sent to war, after the non-traditional battles against Islamic foes, torture (not ours, theirs), beheadings, and other horrors, it seems as though those who served are honored every day, by specially advertised on television sales deals, special insurance rates - business gladly waving the flag for customers - and at sporting events in large Roman style Coliseums, er... sports arenas. As it turned out, these events have been bought and paid for by the government. They aren't about honoring the brave men and women who served, they are propaganda. Our television programs feature action adventures of specialized government units which used to serve those who serve us, but for several years now mostly fight terrorism, often by breaking the rules or fudging the rights of suspects. The excess military equipment from the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, the Libyan war and etc. has become part of everyday life - given or sold to police departments in my country to preserve the peace - but from whom? A town not far from here, a bit larger than Brattleboro where I live, now has its own tank. Our police, often ex-military people, have a cowboy us versus them mentality. They do not shoot to disarm, they do not shoot to immobilize, they shoot to kill. We've just had the interesting spectacle of a female police officer being exonerated for killing an unarmed civilian. She couldn't see his hands, you see. She demanded that he show her his hands. He was lying face down on the ground. He moved his hands underneath his body. She was certain that he had a gun, so she shot him in the back. A new wrinkle in women warrior rights.

As for our actual warriors, the Republicans in our government (them again!) have cut the budgets which provide for the care of our fighters, then blamed the Democratic government opposition for the lack of care while they wrap themselves in the flag. These Republicans, however, are a world away from anything President Eisenhower would recognize. Once they were a great party, now they are a bowdlerized version of that group, providing lap dog services to the wealthy and corporate elite.

Even though I was a child at the time, I remember President Eisenhower's farewell address. Because I was a child, I didn't understand all of it. But I remember his warning about something he called the "military industrial complex".

The phony cause known as the Iraq war ably served corporate interests, while destroying the minds and bodies of our youth. Those it served well included a company for which the then Vice-President had been Chief Executive Officer. That company earned billions, made more billions vanish into the desert sands of time, and provided services to our soldiers that included such niceties as providing drinking water which wasn't safe. They were but one of many such companies, and their crimes would takes days to list, but since they were making money there have been no trials, no convictions, no investigations, no nothing except their continuing to 'honor' those who serve. Some honor.

So please excuse me for not jumping on the online bandwagon and attempting to wave the flag higher and more ferociously than my friends and neighbors. I won't buy the special coffee that earns money for warriors. I won't buy any of the special products. I don't buy it at all. I'll take time to observe Armistice Day, and think about a time when peace broke out.

pax vobiscum

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