Honoring Veterans

This post is written by Bill Galvin, a long-time PPF Activist Council member and staff at The Center on Conscience & War in Washington, D.C.

One hundred years ago the world was embroiled in the most horrific war the world had seen. The horror and devastation is hard to comprehend; it was a war in which chemical weapons were first used on a large scale; artillery and machine guns, tanks, submarines, and airplanes brought about annihilation on levels never seen before in human history. It resulted in more than 9 million soldiers dead, and many million more wounded. And that doesn’t count civilian casualties.

99 years ago, at the 11 th hour of the 11 th day of the 11 th month, the guns went silent as the armistice took effect. It was a holy moment. That silence has been described as the “Voice of God”. Although the “Great War” was wasn’t officially over until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 29, 1919, November 11 is immortalized as the day the guns went silent.

In 1919 President Wilson issued a proclamation commemorating November 11 as Armistice Day. At that time he said, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations …”

From its beginning, Armistice Day included a proper honoring of veterans, and the primary thrust was to celebrate peace: the end of the “war to end all wars”. The best way to honor veterans is in fact to ensure that another generation doesn’t have to go through war, and that was understood throughout the world at the end of WWI. There were to be parades and public gatherings as well as a brief suspension of business activity at 11 a.m.

In 1926, the US Congress affirmed this, saying, “it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations. . .”

In 1938, the U.S. Congress officially declared Armistice Day to be a legal holiday – “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, “During the House debate preceding passage of this legislation, it was suggested that Armistice Day would ‘not be devoted to the exaltation of glories achieved in war but, rather, to an emphasis upon those blessings which are associated with the peacetime activities of mankind.’ Armistice Day would mark not only the ‘end of a great war,’ but also the ushering ‘in of a new era of peace.’ The ‘holiday was dedicated to the cause of world peace,’ and as such was to be ‘regarded and observed throughout the land as a day to honor the veterans of the First World War who fought, and especially those who died, for that cause.’ Making Armistice Day a ‘national peace holiday’ was a proposal which had the ‘enthusiastic approval’ of all of the societies representing World War I veterans.” [1]

So what happened? How is it that a national holiday dedicated to the cause of world peace has evolved into a holiday that celebrates war?

First of all, the war to end all wars didn’t end wars. World War II took the world to new levels of destruction, and introduced nuclear weapons to the human arsenal. And with the ‘cold war’ and the war in Korea the “red scare”and the infamous McCarthy witch hunts, the culture and mood of the country had changed.

In the early ‘50’s, veterans groups lobbied in favor of a bill that amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word “Armistice,” and inserting in its place the word “Veterans”; In 1954 Congress passed the bill that replaced the Armistice Day holiday with Veterans Day, which President Eisenhower signed, and he appointed the head of the VA as chair of the new Veterans Day committee.

Honoring veterans does not necessarily honor or support war. In my work as a counselor with the GI Rights Hotline, I have come to see combat vets as victims of war, not much different than refugees and others who are displaced, and they also grieve over the loss of loved ones because of the senseless violence. Actually, there is one significant difference between combat vets and civilian war victims: the civilians don’t have to deal with moral injury. High levels of PTSD, suicides, and moral injury are evidence of the trauma caused by war. Twenty-two veterans of the US military commit suicide every day. We need better support for these folks in need of healing.

We should honor veterans by fixing the VA, providing real support for them, and stop using them as political pawns to support militarism. At many VA hospitals it takes months for a veteran to get a doctor’s appointment. This past spring it was reported that as many as 40 veterans had died in Phoenix this past year because of delayed care. (Darin Selnick, veterans affairs adviser to Concerned Veterans for America said that was the tip of the iceberg.) [2] Veterans trying to use the Montgomery GI Bill learn that it was designed to get them into the military, not to help them pay for college. (The Post 9-11 GI Bill is much better, but the Montgomery GI Bill continues to con military personnel.)

But in 1954 the US decided to implement the “Veterans Day” holiday with a distinct pro-military slant. Armistice Day was rooted in memories of the fear, pain and suffering caused by war, and called us tohonor the veterans and dedicate our lives to a  future without war. In contrast, Veterans Day was framed as a holiday that celebrates heroes—it glorifies the valor of battle—and in doing so supports war and encourages impressionable young folks to seek some of that glory for themselves, forgetting about the horrors of war. So as the nation moved into to unprecedented levels of military spending and weapons stockpiling and a permanent military economy because of the cold war, it also replaced a holiday that was dedicated to the cause of world peace with one that honored those who fought in war in a way that glorifies war. This has become very clear as we see Veterans for Peace chapters being denied the right to march in Veterans Day parades.

It has become a celebration of war. As one veteran has written, “I am more angry and frustrated with each passing Veterans Day – this is my tenth since leaving the US Army Rangers as a conscientious objector – because it gets clearer and clearer that Veteran’s Day is less about honoring veterans than it is about easing the guilty consciences of those who have sent (and continue to send) others to kill and die for reasons that have very little to do with democracy or freedom.”

So it has become a day where public officials wax poetic about the greatness of the US military, as they encourage everyone to say, “Thank you for your service” to people in uniform. Many of the veterans I know say, “Don’t thank me for my service. You don’t know what I’ve done.”

Veterans for Peace now has a campaign to reclaim Armistice Day. “This year with a rise of hate and fear around the world it is as urgent as ever to ring the bells of peace. We in the U.S. must press our government to end reckless rhetoric and military interventions that endanger the entire world. Instead of celebrating militarism, we want to celebrate peace and all of humanity.” As Ed Flaherty, a member of the Iowa City Chapter of Veterans for Peace commented, “[It’s] more than just a historical remembrance. It is about today, about our pressing need to reverse the war-momentum and to take up the sweet burden of creating lasting peace.” [3]

The best way to truly support veterans is to stop sending people off to war, so we don’t create another generation of broken people in need of special help to keep their lives together. Or, as Liz Rekowski of the Center on Conscience & War wrote several years ago, “The greatest gift the world could give those warriors was the promise that they would never have to do those things again, by creating a world where it would not be necessary.  Every year on November 11 the world would remember this promise and remember why it was made.” [4]

1 CRS Report for Congress Received through the CRS Web 98-301 GOV Federal Holidays: Evolution and Application Updated February 8, 1999 Stephen W. Stathis Specialist in American National Government Government Division Congressional Research Service . The Library of Congress