On Tuesday, the United States should be celebrating its 95th Armistice Day, pausing as a nation to think about the terrible costs of war – including the loss of so many lives. Unfortunately, we replaced it with a very different holiday.
On 1 June 1954, less than a year after America exited the Korean War in defeat, the US congress got rid of Armistice Day, which was established in 1919, and started Veterans Day. In place of what had been a celebration of peace, Congress instituted an annual veneration of those who fought in war. America would ever after celebrate not the beauty of peace, but its purveyors of state violence in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, Kosovo, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and more.
Governments had meant to do the opposite in 1919: if you go back and read the newspapers of the time closely enough, you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief and jubilation on the first Armistice Day. Millions celebrated peace and renounced war on that November day, a year after the violence in Europe had ended: after the mustard gas stopped burning off soldiers’ skin; after Gatling guns stopped mowing down young boys from mostly poor and working class families; after fighter planes stopped streaking the sky; and after bloody bayonets were wiped clean. In the wake of so much carnage, it was then clear to millions of people that wars were not about valour or romantic ideals, but about empire, which benefits a few at the expense of many.
It took only two more wars fighting for empire before the Americans buried that day’s history as a celebration of peace.
Kurt Vonnegut, a World War II veteran, wrote in 1973:
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.
Armistice Day was sacred because it was intended to evoke memories of fear, pain, suffering, military incompetence, greed and destruction on the grandest scale for those who had participated in war, directly and indirectly. Armistice Day was a hallowed anniversary because it was supposed to protect future life from future wars.
Veterans Day, instead, celebrates “heroes” and encourages others to dream of playing the hero themselves, covering themselves in valour. But becoming a “hero” means going off to kill and be killed in a future war – or one of our government’s current, unending wars.
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 honouring 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. I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the day is more of a slap in the face than a pat on the back to those who served, despite the endless thank yous, parades, and concerts supposedly held in our honour.
This might be the biggest Veterans Day yet: Metallica, Rihanna, Eminem and Bruce Springsteen are headlining a huge Concert for Valor on the National Mall in Washington DC, sponsored by Chase Bank, Starbucks and HBO. Hundreds of smaller parades, ceremonies, sporting events and concerts will be held across the country in the shadow of the 14th year of the Global War on Terror.
The Armistice-turned-Veterans Day celebrations will be held in a country that has 668 military bases around the globe. They will be held in a country that has conducted military operations in two-thirds of the world’s countries since 9/11. They will be held in a county that spends three quarters of a trillion dollars each year on its military – more than the next thirteen countriescombined. They will be held in a country that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives around the world these past 14-years, and which shows no sign of slowing down.
What do the millions of people in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries who have lost loved ones to America’s wars think of these celebrations? What should veterans coping with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, dealing with traumatic injuries or struggling with chronic unemployment think of these events? What do the families of those soldiers and veterans who have taken their own lives feel?
I suspect it’ll be difficult to even hear those questions in your head while Metallica is shredding on stage – and maybe that’s the point.
Still, many soldiers are beginning to question America’s wars and their tolls at home and abroad. According to journalist Matt Kennard, more than 40,000 US soldiers have declared their own personal Armistice Days by becoming conscientious objectors since 9/11 – and I was one of them.
Once I left the military as a conscientious objector and began speaking about it, the personal “thank-yous” from strangers started to dry up – apparently, it’s more heroic to kill people under orders than to demand that you be allowed to stop. But there are many ways to cover yourself in valour and act the hero, even if there’s only one way sanctioned by a federal holiday.
If we really wanted to honour veterans, we would abolish Veterans Day and replace it with a day that celebrates peace, not war. Peace is a better way to honour the sacrifice of veterans like me than a day designed to recruit the next generation of soldiers we’ll have to thank for their service in yet another war.