November 11, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Throw Veterans Day away
Vonnegut was right. Armistice Day was better.
Today’s is Veterans Day. It’s one day of the year set aside to honor men and women who fought bravely for their country. But what if I were to suggest another meaning? What if I were to suggest we have it mostly wrong?
From July to November in 1916, 1 million men died, or their lives, and the lives of everyone they loved, were changed forever. One million. These were men who really understood what war was about. It was about dying, agony and death.
My inspiration is Kurt Vonnegut. You may know him. He’s the author of 1973’s Breakfast of Champions, among many others. In the preface, Vonnegut talks about remembering Veterans Day in its original form.
This is what he said.
So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.
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 another 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.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.Preface to Breakfast of Champions, 1973.
See the difference? On the one hand is a day for remembering what it was like when people “stopped butchering.” To give you an idea: the Battle of the Somme saw more than 1 million men killed or injured. From July to November in 1916, 1 million men died, or their lives, and the lives of everyone they loved, were changed forever. One million. These were men who really understood what war was about.
It was about dying, agony and death.
Armistice Day was, according to Vonnegut, a reprieve. A moment of grace, even. It was the brief — and holy — absence of dying, agony and death. That’s something you want to remember forever. That’s something you want a democratic society to hold dear.
I don’t think we do that anymore, though.
Oh, we honor the men and women who fought bravely for their country. That’s good and right. But it’s only half. It seems to me civil society can make a fetish out of men and women who fought bravely for their country while inadvertently, or perhaps conveniently, forgetting what they survived.
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Something happened to us after 9/11. Conservatives were leading. Naturally, conservatives thought the best way to protect civil society was to militarize it. For the duration of George W. Bush’s time in office, he was seen more as commander-in-chief than president. A republic really shouldn’t do that.
Citizens should be in charge. Citizens are equal. But the 2002 midterms showed us citizenship is unworthy of respect. United States Senator Max Cleland left his arm and both legs in Vietnam. Heroism was his. He died Tuesday years after being dishonored in that year’s election. This Veterans Day should remind us honor is for Republicans. It is not for Americans.
John Kerry was decorated for valor. But he spoke out against the Vietnam War. His valor became forfeit. The GOP acted like his 2004 candidacy was a challenge to the divine right of commanders-in-chief. They destroyed him. Our civil society, by that point increasingly militarized, said sure. Okie-dokie.
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The election of the first Black president shocked America. For good, yes. But also bad. This had been a white man’s country. Honor, valor, duty, sacrifice — these meant something eternal. But some restrictions applied. Pre-2008: We must always support our command-in-chief! Post-2008: … when he’s white.
The United States Supreme Court is poised to make a new right — to carry a gun anywhere. There is a straight line between 9/11, running through the election of the first Black president, and now. Democracy isn’t how we solve problems. Democracy is the problem. The answer is guns. It’s dying, agony and death. It began 20 years ago. Militarization is nearly done. It’s war every day.
In the meantime, Veterans Day has become a day to honor men and women who fought bravely for their country. If they don’t complain. If they’re loyal. If they’re from the right party. If they’re the right race. If the rest of us forget the original point was peace, holy peace.
I think Vonnegut was right. Let’s throw it away.
And let’s hold on to sacred things.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
I’m really surprised at the lack of comments. I think this essay is one of your finest work. I posted a link on my Facebook page. Of the comments or “thumbs-up” I got I found it interesting no veteran disagreed, two specifically agreed. My daughter wrote how she disagreed and two sisters of mine supported her. In my response I wrote that glorifying the warriors we glorify the wars making it all to easy to march off to the next one, a dynamic our recent history shows is happening.
Thank you, Dave.