Last year, I recalled the history of Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) and the enhanced meaning of that day after the death of the last U.S. veteran of the First World War. This year, Florence Green, the last veteran from anywhere in the world, passed away at the age of 110. I therefore revisit my post from last year again.
Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there,
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
Their drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, send a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware—
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over over there.
Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11 every year? Most other federal holidays, including birthdays of historical figures, get moved to Mondays. Aside from New Year’s Day, which obviously can’t be moved, and Christmas, which has a very strong tradition for a specific date, all other holidays generally float around to create a convenient long weekend.
But Veterans Day does not. It is always celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, and those who are involved in ceremonies may know that they generally begin at the 11th hour (11:00 in the morning) on Veterans Day. Hmm — 11:00 on 11/11. This year is 2011, which made it 11:00 on 11/11/11. Perhaps, given the special form of the date this past week, it is time to recall why we celebrate at such an unusual time on such a specific date.
There is another reason why this year is a particularly special time to remember the significance of Veterans Day: the last original veteran died this year, or at least the last U.S. veteran. There is only one remaining in the rest of the world, a 110-year-old woman in England.
What is often forgotten these days is that Veterans Day is actually Armistice Day. On the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour in the year 1918, the armistice—the agreement to end all hostilities—was signed to mark the official end of the First World War, which at that time was known as simply the Great War, or even the War to End All Wars.
Armistice Day was not a celebration of the war. It was not a time for patriotism or for the cheering of veterans for their service. Instead, it was a celebration of peace, of thanksgiving that some veterans did make it home to their families after a senseless war.
The origins of World War I are complex, but people at the time and today agree that the alliances and agreements that forced all of Europe into a total war also escalated the crisis and the subsequent carnage. This war was the worst meeting of old styles of war against machines. Tanks, poison gas, and improved machine guns coexisted with traditional lines of charging men and horses. Trenches, which previously had been an element of siege warfare because of the long duration of such campaigns, became a permanent home on battlefields as the traditional lines of soldiers sought refuge from the automatic weapons. Disease, poor supply lines, and weather contributed to the horror.
As Wilfred Owen, a poet in the lines in World War I, described it, the old platitude about how sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) seemed very strange in the conditions of the trenches:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Is it any wonder that, following a war that escalated to encompass most of the world, everyone would want to celebrate the peace? Armistice Day was not like the later V-E Day and V-J Day that would celebrate victories over Germany and Japan in World War II. The Armistice was hardly a triumphal victory following an unconditional surrender: it was a peace deal that ended a long and bloody war.
The hope of an annual celebration of Armistice Day was that the world would never again be plunged into such a horrific conflict. In 1928, many countries made this an official policy with the passage of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a treaty that effectively outlawed war. Not just aggressive war, but all war used by governments as a policy. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty almost unanimously (with only one dissenting vote), and to this day it remains the official law of the U.S. Of course, the pact barely lasted a few years, as the build-up to World War II saw numerous invasions and ultimately the escalation into another total war.
But in these early days between the wars, Armistice Day stood not as a monument to patriotism or to cheering troops, but as a reminder of the destruction of the Great War, the War to End All Wars. Armistice Day did not celebrate veterans: it stood for the hope that we might never need more of them.
This year, the last U.S. veteran of that war died. Frank Buckles was 110 years old when he died on February 27, 2011, and in his last years, he lobbied for the construction of a national monument to those who served in World War I. There was perhaps some hope in him and the few other veterans of that conflict who remained in recent decades that we might recall the terrible things that led to Armistice Day, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and the hope that we might never need another veteran to go off to war. (Now, only one veteran remains—Florence Green, from the U.K., also 110 years old, who never served in combat, but served as an officers’ mess steward. Buckles, too, never saw combat, but the last veteran who did also died earlier this year.)
This year marked the first Veterans Day without any of those original veterans. In the years following World War II, which had been viewed as a conflict against the evils of Hitler rather than a senseless war brought about alliances, the millions of new veterans sought their own recognition. World War II was felt to have been a more just war for a just cause, even a defensive war fought against powers that threatened to take over the world. Evil had been vanquished, and the victors were proud of it.
So, it was proposed to change the meaning of Armistice Day, which by then was merely a memory of a long-gone conflict where World War I veterans might form a parade, into a celebration of the warriors who came home from all wars. Unlike Memorial Day, which honored the dead, Veterans Day would exalt the living soldiers, the ones who came back in honor and glory.
Armistice Day, the celebration of peace and the hope that the last veteran had served in 1918, became (under President—formerly Supreme Commander—Eisenhower) Veterans Day, a celebration of nationalist pride for our warrior heroes.
Now that the last veteran has passed, it is perhaps time to remember the meaning of Armistice Day. Of course, we should honor the character of the many men and women who have served, and the dynamics of our world today demonstrate that there is a lot we would have to resolve before achieving a new peace. I am not hopelessly idealistic, but I do think we could do better.
Therefore, for Armistice Day, let us also recall the hope that the world might be better if we didn’t need veterans at all, if the last veteran who died this year might have been the last veteran of all, because the War to End All Wars might have actually convinced us to end them. Whatever happened to: “We won’t come back till it’s over over there.” The “it” was obviously the Great War, but Armistice Day was the hope that “it” might be the end of all war.
What would it be like to have a Veterans Day without veterans?
Wouldn’t that be the ultimate way to honor the dead of World War I, to celebrate the Armistice, to hope for peace? As you reflect on last week’s holiday and on future Veterans Days that cause us to stop and reflect in the middle of the week on that strange but exact time of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, remember the last U.S. veteran of that Great War is gone. What would those old soldiers say?
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
—Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, May 3rd, 1915
While McCrae’s final stanza is often seen as an incitement to war after the somber beginning, perhaps we can see also see the “quarrel with the foe” as a better alternative to a true war. We all have arguments, and sometimes we say and do things that we shouldn’t have, but when the quarrel is over, we move past it by recognizing the wrongs and trying to prevent the quarrel from happening again. We seek peace, rather than childishly thumping our chests in victory. After the quarrel was over, the torch that Armistice Day celebrations carried for those veterans was a promise to sue for peace when possible, to avoid another wasteful war.
We should be thankful our veterans have returned home safely, and we should honor their service, but perhaps now is the time to reinvigorate hope for the ending of conflicts, for the quest for peace, and for those World War I dead finally to sleep.
We were faithful, we made peace, and now let it finally be over . . . not just over there, but everywhere.