In my blog, I’ve regularly chosen a timely holiday as my topic, taking the event of the moment to explore how we shape our lives and how our lives are shaped.
Some, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Halloween, let me explore personal meanings. Others, like Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, have let me learn more about the holiday and even push back against some of the ways we’ve ended up acting within them. Occasionally, a holiday has let me play and make a fool of myself (yes, I’m thinking of my versions of the Twelve Genres of Christmas!)
But Veterans Day? I began at a loss. The day must celebrate Veterans, right? I mean, that’s what it’s called.
It took learning more about the other things this day has been called for me to understand what this day could — should — be about.
Words do matter.
Although Veterans Day hasn’t been a holiday our society has done much with recently, veterans are getting more attention in general now than the not-so-distant past (since 9/11?). They’re regularly brought center stage and applauded now at sporting events, given priority boarding at airports, offered discounts everywhere. And for Veterans Day, I’m sure that the holiday must also have received more attention recently. In my own town, the locals did resuscitate the Veterans Day Parade for the first time in many years, and people joined the parade or stood in the cold and mist to recognize Veterans Day.
But how else is the day acknowledged? We don’t get mail delivered that day, so opening our empty mailboxes may remind us that it’s a federal holiday. Do we even know how it differs from Memorial Day? They’re both about honoring soldiers, right?
I was pleased when I found the history of Veterans Day on the US Department of Veterans Affairs website because it showed me origins and meanings of the day that go well beyond what I understood. It showed me the original name — Armistice Day. And it showed me the original words of the proclamations. I found those words moving, and ones we should do better at sharing and acting upon.
”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…”
— President Woodrow Wilson proclaiming the first Armistice Day
“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”
— US Congress concurrent resolution
“This date,” of course, refers to November 11. The date is not a random one. The original Armistice Day celebrated the armistice, as the website explains: “an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of ‘the war to end all wars.’”
After World War I did not end all wars, after World War II, after Korea, the day to recognize the Armistice, the cessation of hostilities, became Veterans Day, the day to honor the veterans of all wars. From commemorating a ceasefire to commemorating soldiers.
We may have given up on the notion that we can end all wars, but the “optimism of will” that created this day originally should persist in how we honor this day. After the horrors of World War I, the people of the United States resolved not to honor their veterans but to honor the armistice and to keep the armistice going by rebuilding connections with other nations and other peoples.
The concurrent resolution by the US Congress on June 4, 1926, deserves to be read in full:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas 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; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
— US Congress resolution
Notice the celebration of the resumption of “peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed.”
Notice the commemoration through activities “designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Notice the invitation to the people to observe with ceremonies “of friendly relations with all other peoples.”
We understood then.
Having undergone the devastation of a brutal war, the hostility between nations, we understood the need to build peaceful relations, mutual understanding, and friendly relations with “all other peoples” and their nations.
We understood then.
What a different response to the situation today. The VA website ends with a statement of the important purpose of Veterans Day today:
”A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
Only some of the original meaning remains in that statement. Certainly, we should honor veterans of all wars. Certainly, veterans deserve respect for their service and sacrifice.
But let’s notice those last four words, “for the common good.” And let’s define “the common good” as it was in the origins of this armistice day, as what was good for all peoples of all nations — mutual understanding and friendly relations. Let’s recommit to “patriotism” and “love of country” as doing what is good for our country by building global understanding and peaceful relations.
The world is different today, I know. September 11 has changed the meaning of November 11, even if the word for the day had never changed. We can’t depend on relations among nations to preserve peace. Some reject the possibility of mutual understanding; others are unwilling.
But how does it change the meaning of November 11 to focus not on the armistice but on the veterans? I’d like to think our goals remain the same — peaceful relations that will reduce the chance of more people becoming veterans of wars. In the Commonwealth of Nations, Armistice Day evolved into Remembrance Day.
So let’s remember what we’re remembering.
Let’s honor our veterans by recognizing what they have sacrificed and by doing everything in our power to keep others from having to make such sacrifices in the future. Let’s honor our veterans by reducing the number of future veterans.
Next year, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, at the moment of the ceasefire, I will remember how it began, and I will understand better, and I will look for ways, even in these times of divided and dispersed hostility, to rebuild mutual understanding and peaceful relations with all peoples.
I feel a bit like Linus at the end of the Charlie Brown special proclaiming the true meaning of Christmas. But I hope a difference here might be that some of you, like me, might not have known of the original call behind Veterans Day, the original commemoration of armistice,
“to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding.”
That’s a purpose that calls for a different sort of response.
We understood then. Can we understand now, too?
Let’s all meet for Armistice Day