By Reginald Johnson
On Nov. 11, 1918 ---- 100 years ago ---- one of the most savage conflicts in history came to an end.
Some 30 million people were killed in World War I, called at the time the “War to End All Wars.” The conflict saw bitter trench warfare, hand-to-hand combat and the use of chemical weapons. Tens of thousands of young men were killed in a single day by machine gun fire or poison gas. Combatants who weren’t killed were often maimed for life, or, like my grandfather, left blind by gas.
But an Armistice signed at 11 am on Nov. 11, finally brought an end to the horror.
People in the United States and Europe --- where the war was fought --- rejoiced that the four-year nightmare was over. Peace was finally at hand.
To observe the end to World War I, an “Armistice Day” was set up in 1920. Parades and public gatherings took place “celebrating the peace that came two years earlier while solemnly remembering those millions who perished during war,” writes Tarik Kauff, a member of Veterans for Peace and an editor for the organization’s newsletter.
Six years later, Kauff said, Congress passed a resolution which said that the “recurring anniversary of November 11, 1918 should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace between nations.”
In 1938, Armistice Day was made into a legal federal holiday, “dedicated to the cause of world peace.”
Armistice Day was observed without interruption until 1954. But in that year --- one year after the Korean War had ended and eight years after the end of World War II --- political leaders decided that the name of the observance should be changed to Veterans Day. Under pressure from veterans service organizations, who said veterans from all wars should be honored, a militaristic Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower approved the name change.
In making the change, the spirit of the observance was altered from one of both honoring the sacrifice of veterans and building world peace to one of honoring veterans, emphasizing patriotism and implicitly endorsing the need for the wars that the US has fought in the past and ones that will be fought in the future.
As Kauff wrote in his article “Reclaim Armistice Day” in a recent publication by the same name published by Veterans for Peace, the “powers that be thought it more fitting to honor the living veterans and glorify their sacrifice for country,” rather than stress the need for building world peace.
And so it has gone over the years on every Veterans Day, which is being observed again today. Veterans who fought in America’s wars are hailed as heroes in thunderous speeches. There is no mention of the fact that some of these wars, such as Vietnam or Iraq, were clearly wrong and that huge numbers of innocent civilians, not to mention many Americans, needlessly perished. It is implied that whatever wars took place --- no matter how much bloodshed there was --- the conflicts were justified in the name of protecting American security. There is no talk about the need to avoid future wars and to build a better structure for peace.
While it is not the intention of many of the participants, Veterans Day observances serve as a propaganda tool for the government to justify future wars.
A number of veterans, particularly those associated with Veterans for Peace, are now speaking out about the need to emphasize peace and not just glorify the military and war. Veterans for Peace in recent years has been actively pushing the idea of reclaiming Armistice Day and bringing back the original concepts behind the day when we honor the sacrifice of veterans.
“Veterans, many of whom have seen the futility and inhumanity of war and militarism, do not want wars for empire and profit, nor do we need to be glorified, honored, or put on pedestals for killing or be prepared to kill,” writes Kauff, a former Army paratrooper.
“What we veterans really need is for society to reclaim the spirit of Armistice Day and unite in the common desire of the human spirit for peace,” he said.
The organization is trying to spread the word for bringing back Armistice Day on social media and contacting elected representatives. They have also urged churches, schools and community centers to ring bells eleven times on November 11 at 11 AM to remember the soldiers and civilians killed or injured by warfare.