By Dr. Joshua Shurley
“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.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
A century ago, as the world looked on at the closing of the First World War (then known as “the war to end all wars”), it spoke with a resolute voice that it was time to honor the dead and wounded and look forward in celebration of peace. The peace accord to end that bloody war went into effect on the morning of Nov. 11—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—in the year 1918. At 11 a.m., the guns went silent and all was quiet on the Western Front. Thereafter, the day was dubbed Armistice Day—“a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated.”
Many Americans over a certain age might remember the annual celebrations each November: a solemn remembrance of the war dead—both soldier and civilian—and the painful sacrifices wrought by that war’s destruction. Church gatherings were common, and the ringing of church bells 11 times at the 11th hour each Nov. 11 were a familiar—if distant—memory.
Then the U.S. Congress (during the Eisenhower administration), in its infinite wisdom, rebranded Armistice Day in 1954 as Veterans Day. The intent was to broaden the holiday from being a remembrance of World War I’s painful costs toward being a day to honor all of those who served. Being only a few years after the close of the Second World War, it is understandable that the nation looked to honor the sacrifices of those millions of recently returned veterans from yet another bloody “world war.” It was another painful period of time for a population wracked by war and looking forward to peace.
Over time, however, through the Korean and Vietnam wars up until today’s litany of endless global conflicts, Veterans Day has devolved into something far different from the original intent. Yes, those who served are recognized, but that recognition is a form of blind hero worship, rather than a thoughtful acknowledgment of the brutality and futility of what war is and what war does.
Although the phrase “thank you for your service” is a common refrain, far too few of us really question what that service was for. Today’s Veterans Day holiday in America is tacitly about honoring the military itself as an institution and thus glorifying its primary purpose—war. With parades of flag waving, military gear and cheers for those marching in formations, Armistice Day has been flipped from a day for peace into a day for displays of militarism.
Unlike many other veterans’ advocacy groups that too often gloss over the troubling perversion of the holiday’s original intent and bask in the gratifying glow of blind hero worship, others are stepping up to ask Americans to think critically about the reason why it is this way. The organization known as Veterans for Peace (VFP) comprises former military service members from around the world and across the United States.
The VFP’s mission is to raise awareness and expose the true costs of war: the financial costs, the human costs and the moral costs. It seeks to build peace abroad and at home in our communities. Perhaps most important, the VFP works to end war as an instrument of national policy.
In that spirit, Veterans for Peace–Fresno Chapter urges you to join its efforts to Reclaim Armistice Day. This year, as Nov. 11 falls on a Sunday, houses of worship in the community are being invited to commemorate Armistice Day in its originally intended spirit: to solemnly remember the war dead—both soldier and civilian—by ringing the bells 11 times after a moment of silence, to reflect on the folly of war and to commit to elevating our consciousness and working for peace—be it around the world, in our communities or in our own lives.
The following day, Nov. 12, is the official observance of Veterans Day and the day of the annual Veterans Day Parade in downtown Fresno. Veterans for Peace, in conjunction with WILPF, Peace Fresno and the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, will hold an event to counter the glorification of war and displays of militarism that have become all too common each Nov. 11. Planning is under way.
If you feel that supporting the troops and the veterans as human beings means putting a stop to the insanity of endless war we now perpetuate, this is for you. The hard work of divesting from war must begin, so that we can then invest in peace. Nov. 11 and 12: Save the dates to help reclaim Armistice Day.
Dr. Joshua Shurley is an army veteran turned conflict researcher who currently teaches political science at Clovis Community College. He is a board member of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and is president of Veterans for Peace–Chapter 180 in Fresno. Contact him at email@example.com.