Monday, November 13, 2017

The Garden of History: The Origin of Veterans Day and the End of War

            Veterans Day is celebrated on the date of the 1918 "armistice," the agreement that ended the First World War I on Nov. 11.
            After four years of a devastating modern mechanized gunnery and heavy armaments style of warfare unlike anything the world had seen before, none of the combatants had anything to celebrate. 
             What was World War I about? Nothing that justified destroying lives by the thousands; and nothing that was resolved by the enormity of four years of death and destruction. 
              A rising European power, Germany wanted its “day in the sun.” France wanted to regain territory lost to Germany in a previous war. Russia wanted absorb more of the declining Ottoman Empire into its own Czarist oppression. Turkey was talked into allying with Germany to protect that empire from Russian aggression. England, afraid of a threat from rising German power, a country that insisted on building a navy that would some day rival its own – our word for this today is “arms race” – allied with France to maintain what it saw as a favorable balance of power. Austria, another fading empire, allied with imperial Germany also to seek protection from Russia and that country's pan-Slavic agitation of orthodox Christian minorities within the Austro-Hungarian empire. Italy, nursing grievances against Austria, joined the England-France team.
            Significant segments of the population in the various warring parties believed that a war would get them what they wanted, at minimal cost – and quickly. Absolutely everybody was wrong.
            What war brings is a sharp reduction of population, particularly in the youthful demographic, loss of wealth and productive capacity, setbacks in social progress, and renewed cries for vengeance.  
             Among the costs of the world war that began in August of 1914, France lost 300,000 men killed in the first five months. Major battles continued to reckon the casualties in the hundreds of thousands. 
             European armies, eventually joined by American forces exactly 100 years ago, laid waste to one another along trench lines and fortresses until a weakened and worn Germany sued for peace and an armistice was declared on Nov. 11, 1918. Historian Alistair Horne writes in his book "La Belle France":

  When the celebrants of Armistice Day in Paris paused to consider the cost in the grey light of day, they counted 1.4 million Frenchmen killed in action, the largest proportion of any of the combatant nations; On top of that came the civilian dead and the victims of the flu epidemic that took 40 million lives across the globe... Thus it was hardly surprising that the post-Armistice Day cry across the breath of France was "Plus jamais ca! [Never again!]"

         That message, however, has been lost sight of again and again as nation states and their governments, even the so-called democratic ones, continue to use military force in a vain attempt to solve conflicts with other nation states. 

          What is the enduring meaning of Veterans Day, a day that was created to commemorate the ending of the "Great War"? Here it is in the words of Roger Ehrlich, a member of Veterans For Peace and "co-creator of the Swords To Ploughshares Memorial Belltower" in Raleigh, N.C.:

Ninety-nine years ago, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, bells tolled around the world, and people poured into public squares to celebrate the end of what was called The War to End All Wars. For many years, Armistice Day was observed as a day to remember the dead of WWI and rededicate ourselves to never letting it happen again.

Ehrlich said the Memorial Belltower in Raleigh provides a place to memorialize the loss of loved ones, fellow countrymen, and even to recognize the losses of wartime enemies: "Perhaps the most radical but most healing aspect of our Belltower is the inclusion of inscriptions memorializing the suffering of our ‘enemies’... This Armistice Day, let us – at long last – beat our swords into plowshares."

       The Veterans For Peace national organization took the opportunity of Veterans Day this year to urge Americans to sign the People’s Peace Treaty with North Korea. Here's what these veterans are saying:
       Alarmed by the threat of a nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea, Veterans For Peace and other concerned U.S. peace groups have come together to send an open message to Washington and Pyongyang that we are strongly opposed to any resumption of the horrific Korean War. What we want is a peace treaty to finally end the lingering Korean War!
        Inspired by the Vietnam-era People’s Peace Treaty, we have initiated a People’s Peace Treaty with North Korea, to raise awareness about the past U.S. policy toward North Korea, and to send a clear message that we, the people of the U.S., do not want another war with North Korea.