In 2015, I answered some common questions about Veterans Day. Last year, I wrote a story about a moving conversation that I had with a soldier who had overcome an addiction to opioids. Because I’m serving in Poland with the US Army this fall, I’m looking at Veterans Day a bit differently.
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 marks the unofficial end of World War I (the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 officially ended it). A few weeks ago, I noticed that the British soldiers on base were wearing red paper flowers. I recognized them as poppies and asked them why they were wearing them before November 11th. The red poppy is one of the two defining images ‘In Flanders Field,’ the most famous poem written about those that died in the Great War. One officer said that they wear them everyday for a few weeks leading up to Remembrance Day. An American sergeant in the room blurted, “That’s the same day we celebrate Veterans Day.” I stifled a glare and withheld a withering comment and said that both commemorate the end of World War I. Over a century later, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium, and a few other allies and commonwealth nations continue to remember the day and solemnly hold ceremonies. I’ll come back to this.
Poland recognizes November 11th as their National Independence Day. While the culture is well over 1,000 years old, Poland was partitioned in 1795 between Russia, Prussia (part of modern day Germany), and the Hapsburg Empire (modern day Austria). The country ceased to exist, at least as a form of government or on a map, but the language and proud culture survived during that 123 year period until Poland re-emerged out of the ashes of the Allied victory at the end of World War I. They had been partitioned two earlier times in the 19th century and endured previous invasions from the Russians, Teutonic Knights, Prussians, Tartars, and Swedes. Poland was often defeated but never truly conquered. In 1939, Germany invaded from the west and Russia invaded from the east. 85% of Warsaw was destroyed by 1944. The Germans were eventually driven out but the Russians turned out to be another cruel despot that directly or indirectly controlled Poland until 1989. Of the 195 countries that are recognized by the United Nations, only a few may have suffered the horrors of war worse than Poland. One can argue that no country has had more menacing neighbors. Today, Poland still casts a wary eye eastward.
World War I was originally known as the Great War. It was once called ‘The War to End All Wars.’ The total deaths suffered by the allied forces were about six million while the central powers numbered around four million. One must note the additional 20 million servicemembers that were wounded; as well as the civilian casualties that were so difficult to determine. The numbers are staggering (they would be dwarfed by the death toll of World War II; which because of the stark villainy and the recency has pushed WW1 to the background of most peoples’ minds). Families were shattered; towns were emptied; cities were destroyed; the western world suffered a collective trauma. The end of the war led to mass celebrations around the world. More significantly, people hoped that humanity had learned a lesson through this catastrophe and would keep the peace. Armistice Day would not just remember the end of the Great War, but it was supposed to be a yearly reminder that everyone loses in war and that we must strive for peace. The British soldiers I spoke with still know this lesson.
Not so in America. Armistice Day eventually morphed into Veterans Day. Now it’s a national holiday where people drink beer, save money when shopping, post near-meaningless support on social media, and some veterans get a “thank you for your service” (which less than half of them like to hear).Civilians often express compassion, gratitude, or guilt when they see the Marine with one leg or the soldier with no arms and one eye. They wonder or suspect or fear the hidden wounds of PTSD (or C-PTSD). Most Americans only think about veterans when they watch a war movie or a politician uses them on a stump speech or they bump into one or on Veterans Day. Ask people about veterans and you’ll usually hear enthusiastic bellowing. Businesses trip over themselves to say that they are veteran friendly and they outdo each other by flying giant flags to show just how much they care and demonstrate their level of patriotism. Because they utter some words and because they fly a flag. Servicemembers and veterans have become a pretend sacred cow in the United States; they are supported with token words. And ovations at sporting events (this intersection of sports and the military is particularly galling, because it doesn’t address the policy problems in the Department of Defense and it serves as a vile recruiting tool for children and teenagers in the stands). The military perpetually screws over those that serve (instead of a “thank you,” ask a servicemember or a vet if their military branch ever fucked them over). The VA continually churns out disaster stories.
And yet. Veterans Day. Despite the holiday (such a bad word choice for November 11th), the movies, and the gratitude & guilt, we, as a nation, seem to be failing at recognizing the real reason for pausing on November 11th.
War is horrible. For those that serve; for those that wait for them back home. For the nations that lose. For the nations that supposedly win. For everyone. We need to do better. We must work harder to attain and maintain peace. Not just between nations but also between individuals.
This problem is as old as human kind. Plato wrote “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” He died well over 2300 years ago and those words still ring true.
For those of you reading this as an anti-American verse, you are painfully mistaken. For those that think this is a full-throated cry for pacifism, again you are mistaken. Sit with me and I’ll tell endless true tales that will erupt sorrow and rage in even the sunniest plastic patriot. I want us to be better. To not debase others. Or dehumanize them. Or use the military as a knee jerk response. If you speak with violence, talk of invasions, celebrate fighting, or glorify war, I invite you to spend some time on the front lines helping with the aftermath. Ponder the father who outlives his son or the child who grows up without a mother. Think on the veteran who mourns his fellows. Picture a spouse in a forever lonely bed. Visualize the soldier who is jarred awake from near-nightly nightmares. Consider the cities that have been razed, the cultural artifacts that have been destroyed. Wonder about what books the dead might have written or the diseases they may have cured. Meditate on the folly of it all. And work towards peace. Among nations. Among yourselves. This Veterans Day. This Armistice Day. Be better.