Back on November 11, 1918, with the end of World War I, once the most bloody war in history, and with a two-year deadly flu pandemic raging, caused in large part by the war and the rapid spread of the disease by infected troops returning to their homes, nobody was in the mood to celebrate anything.
The four-year war, fought not to “defend democracy” as our national mythology tells us, but as a cat-fight among colonial empires fighting for bigger shares of each other’s collapsing empires, ended up killing 10 million soldiers (116,000 of them US troops, who only entered that war during its final year) and wounding another 20 million — many of them grievously.
As the first “modern” war, fought with industrial-scale killing machines and weapons like machine guns, tanks, enormous cannons, aerial bombings of cities, and the use of various types of poison gas, it also caused millions of civilian deaths.
It may come as a surprise to today’s US Americans, but when a day of commemoration was established on Nov. 11, 1919, a year to the day after the day all the fighting and killing stopped, it was called Armistice Day (Remembrance Day in the UK), and instead of the fireworks of Memorial Day, was commemorated here in the US by a national minute of silence and mourning at exactly 11 am.
In 1938, with Europe lurching again towards an even more terrible war that would belie the nickname “The War to End All Wars” given optimistically to the global bloodletting of two decades earlier, Congress passed a resolution establishing Armistice Day as a national holiday. The resolution, in a language not heard since in this country with the ascendancy of militarism and cheap jingoistic patriotism, called for the day to be “dedicated to the cause of world peace.”
Then came World War II, with the slaughter of even more civilians and combatants and the launch of the atomic era with the US dropping two catastrophic atomic bombs on non-military Japanese cities for no good reason but to send an intimidating message the Soviet Union by demonstrating their awesome power in the most graphic way possible.
By 1954, with the Cold War raging, and both the US and USSR building, as fast as possible, atomic and even more powerful thermonuclear bombs capable of wiping out entire metropolitan areas or whole nations, November 11 was changed to being called Veterans Day. Instead of dedicating that date to world peace, the myth was then perpetrated that it would be, as proponent Edward H. Rees (Republican-KS) put it, “to give recognition to the fact that before and since World War I, millions of United States men have fought and died under the flag of the United States in the furtherance of world peace.”
Laughable I know, but the reality of course is that most US wars being commemorated, with the exception of the US Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Union side in the Civil War, were fought for much less noble reasons, indeed for quite opposite reasons than “furthering world peace.” Rather the reasons for US wars like the Mexican-American War, the Spanish American War, the so-called Indian Wars, incursions in Libya, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Russia, China, Korea, and Indochina were generally things like imperial conquest, genocidal extermination or anti-Communism.
Over the years, as the US has grown in power relative to other nations in the world, and now as it sees its power waning and being challenged, this country has become like the Roman Empire in its early period of decline — a brutal and bloodthirsty aggressor and slaughterer of millions in an effort to hang on to its global dominance. It’s troops now are even called “warriors,” not soldiers, in language more akin to Rome’s “centurions” than “promoters of peace.”
November 11, from being a solemn day of mourning the horrific costs of war, has become a day for football games, beer and pizza parties, and veterans parades with their flag displays.
The only similarity between today’s Veterans Day, and that first Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919 is that both occurred as an epidemic is raging across the land. In 1919, there was little understanding of what was causing the spread of the deadly flu, but the general public was trying hard to avoid it with isolation, masks, and quarantines of the infected. Today we have vaccines, but we also have a huge number — perhaps a third of the adult population of the country or more — who are so ignorant, anti-science or cult-driven that they refuse to take precautions that even before viruses were discovered were known to be effective and who spurn the vaccines that work and that people in 1919 would have given anything to have available to them.
Worse yet, we have a government that in a time of relative global peace, with no all-out wars involving major military powers going on, continues to spend over $1,3 trillion a year on arms production and funding of the world’s largest military, with over 800 bases spread around the globe, aircraft carriers carrying more planes than most nations’ entire air forces, and nuclear-tipped missile-carrying submarines with enough warheads on one sub to destroy a large nation patrolling foreign shores, and enough nuclear warheads and bombs on hair-trigger alert to destroy the entire world several times over.
And on Veterans Day, instead of mourning all the human costs of war over the last two and a half centuries of the country’s history, we celebrate that obscene military-industrial complex, which does nothing to “preserve peace,” but instead has made the US the primary promoter of violence in the world.
It’s time to get back to Armistice Day.
NOTE: My paternal grandfather, a German-born American citizen brought over by his parents to get away from Europe’s wars as a small child, was drafted in WWI but was barred from carrying a gun because of his national origin. He ended up earning a Silver Star for heroism as an ambulance driver on the front lines in France where he saved both Allie and German lives. My father recalls his dad would never speak of his medal or of his wartime experience. My maternal grandfather spent the war in the trenches where, a macho guy, he taught himself to knit. A superb athlete and sprinter with Olympic potential, he sadly had his lungs scarred from a mustard gas attack and ended up running the school physical education program for the Greensboro, NC school system. He too spoke little about his brutal wartime experience. My dad, a Marine staff sergeant in WWII, hated the military and the Marines in particular, and ended up opposing the Vietnam War and militarism in general. My mother, who enlisted in the Navy in WWII, was a pacifist throughout her life following WWII.