Today is Armistice Day. You were supposed to bow your head in a minute of silence at 11:11 today, the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, in recognition that peace was achieved at that time in 1919, ending what we now call the First World War. Did you do it?”
Neither did I. In the United States Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954, mainly because an Emporia, Kansas shoe store owner felt that all Veterans should be honored, instead of just those who served in World War I. I surmise from this that even Armistice Day was largely a recognition of those who served in the military.
However, a friend posted on facebook the following quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions today, leading me to think a bit more about these holidays and what they mean:
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or an…other that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind. 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.
I disagree with Vonnegut in part. Veterans deserve honor.
If going to war was simply a matter of wanting to participate in a bloodsport, I might agree. But many of those who served didn’t have a choice–they were drafted or conscripted. Others needed work or a way out of poverty, and took advantage of the incentives we, as a nation, provide. Still others have strong feelings of patriotism, and join in an effort to serve their fellow citizens. Given the hell they had to face in actual battle, it is hard to believe that many veterans actually enjoyed that portion of their service.
So, yes, Veterans Day is, or should be, sacred.
BUT, Vonnegut does have a point, at least in my view. The armistice was a peace, the cessation of a horrible war. It is a shame to loose something so sacred as the celebration of peace. And in that sense, I’d rather have Armistice Day, a celebration of achieving peace.
Like all elements of our culture, our holidays say something about who we are and what we value. With Memorial Day we have two holidays that celebrate the sacrifices of those who have served our nation. Perhaps that is right and good. But, couldn’t we have one holiday that is meant to celebrate peace? Isn’t peace even more sacred?