November 11th, 2012

Veterans Day

[NOTE: This is a slightly-edited repost of an article originally written in 2005.]

Yes, indeed, I am that old—old enough to very vaguely remember when Veterans Day was called Armistice Day, or at least to imagine that I do. The change in names occurred in 1954, when I was very small, in order to accommodate World War II and its veterans.

Since then, the original name has largely fallen out of use—although it remains, like a vestigial organ, in the timing of the holiday: November 11th, which commemorates the day the WWI armistice was signed (eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month).

I’m also old enough–and had a teacher ancient enough—to have been forced to memorize that old chestnut “In Flanders Fields” in fifth grade—although without being given any historical context for it. I think at the time I assumed it was about World War II, since as far as I knew that was the only real war.

You can find the story of the poem here. It was written by a Canadian doctor who served in the European theater (there is no separate URL for the discussion of the poem, but you should click on the “John McCrae´s Poppies in Flander’s Fields” link). It’s not great poetry in the poetic sense (that’s my opinion, anyway), but it was great propaganda to encourage America’s entry into what was known at the time as the Great War.

The poem’s first line “In Flanders fields the poppies blow” introduces the famous flower that later became the symbol of Armistice—and later, Veterans—Day. Why the poppy?

Wild poppies flower when other plants in their direct neighbourhood are dead. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, but only when there are no more competing flowers or shrubs in the vicinity (for instance when someone firmly roots up the ground), these seeds will sprout.

There was enough rooted up soil on the battlefield of the Western Front; in fact the whole front consisted of churned up soil. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, around him bloodred poppies blossomed like no one had ever seen before.

But in this poem the poppy plays one more role. The poppy is known as a symbol of sleep. The last line We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields might point to this fact. Some kinds of poppies are used to derive opium from, from which morphine is made. Morphine is one of the strongest painkillers and was often used to put a wounded soldier to sleep. Sometimes medical doctors used it in a higher dose to put the incurable wounded out of their misery.

Now a day to honor those who have served in our wars, Veterans Day has an interesting history in its original Armistice Day incarnation. It was actually established as a day dedicated to world peace, back in the early post-WWI year of 1926, when it was still possible to believe that WWI had been the war fought to end all wars.

The original proclamation establishing Armistice Day as a holiday read as follows:

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.

After the carnage of World War II, of course, the earlier hope that peaceful relations among nations would not be severed had long been extinguished. By the time I was a young child, a weary nation sought to honor those who had fought in all of its wars in order to secure the peace that followed—even if each peace was only a temporary one.

And isn’t an armistice a strange (although understandable) sort of hybrid, after all; a decision to lay down arms without anything really having been resolved? Think about the recent wars that have ended through armistice: WWI, which segued almost inexorably into WWII; the 1948 war following the partition of Palestine; the Korean War; and the Gulf War. All of these conflicts exploded again into violence—or have continually threatened to ever since.

So this Veterans/Armistice Day, let’s join in saluting and honoring those who have fought for our country. The hope that some day war will not be necessary is a laudable one—and those who fight wars hold it, too. But that day has not yet arrived—and, realistically but sadly, perhaps it never will.

16 Responses to “Veterans Day”

  1. Jim Nicholas Says:

    I remember the Armistice Day parade in my home town stopping at 11:00 am for a minute of silence except for the bugle sounding taps.

    Civil war veterans were marching as WW II veterans might march today, in the fewer towns that still have a parade on November 11th.

    It is hard to realize that the end of the Civil War was more recent then than the end of WW II is now. And there certainly was more hope for peace then than there is now.

  2. Sam L. Says:

    Armistice–because the armies in Europe (except ours, most likely) were worn out, and had too few civilians left to enter the armies and continue the war.

    Overcome in one generation…

  3. NeoConScum Says:

    Beautiful post, N-Neo.

    Read the classic,”The First Day on the Somme”, by Martin Middlebrook.(Penguin,1971) 60,000 British casualties that opening day(July 1, 1916), nearly 20,000 KIA. Wrap your brain around that and then remember that The Somme battle dragged on until December.

    And, 23-years later Europe did it again.

  4. geran Says:

    neo-patriotism?

  5. parker Says:

    A gracious and wise post…. “and, realistically but sadly, perhaps it never will.” Yes, the end of war is impossible to imagine. There is always something to kill and die for, just ask the jihadists.

    “And, 23-years later Europe did it again.” Its just a matter of time until they do it yet again. There is no war to end all wars. There is no imagine: http://tinyurl.com/dgmokv Naive, sweet idea, but totally unrealistic.

  6. rickl Says:

    (eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month).

    I did notice that on the Dover Beach thread, I posted “In Flanders Fields” at 11:11 am.

    Serendipity.

  7. Peter Says:

    My mother only had vague memories of her father who died young after surviving the gas in WW1. My dad made that little walk through the lagoon at Tarawa. I was on a landing craft four minutes behind the first wave at Chu Lai, a landing not near as exciting as dad’s. The fighting came later.

    None of my sons enlisted, they came of age after the draft and between wars, my oldest had no interest and I told the younger ones to stay out during Clinton. By the end of Clinton’s term they were married, with kids.

    It’s strange. My family has been in every one of our wars since the Civil War, we came to “Bleeding Kansas” around 1850, fresh off the boat with only a few words of English. The folks in Boston, where the boat landed gave my family land, land they weren’t allowed to own in the old country. And a few surplus muskets.

    We’ve fought in all the wars up to the one we’re in now. No wonder the country isn’t winning this one.

  8. Smock Puppet, 10th Dan Snark Master Says:

    .

    The hope that some day war will not be necessary is a laudable one—and those who fight wars hold it, too. But that day has not yet arrived—and, realistically but sadly, perhaps it never will.

    We live in a universe where entropy is the primal force against which life struggles. All life necessarily exists by feeding off the destruction/disorganization of other things. So to expect there to be no war is to seek the end of all life.


    “If Man wants to be top dog – or even a respected neighbor – he’ll have to fight for it. Beat the plowshares back into swords; the other was a maiden aunt’s fancy.”

    – R. A. Heinlein -

    .

  9. Smock Puppet, 10th Dan Snark Master Says:

    P.S., I VERY strongly recommend

    What We Lost In The Great War

    Seventy-five years ago this spring a very different America waded into the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century. World War I did more than kill millions of people; it destroyed the West’s faith in the very institutions that had made it the hope and envy of the world.

    It’s 20 years old and even more significant now than it was then. Long but well worth the read.

    I believe in the “Great War” one finds the seeds of The West’s own destruction, as Classical Liberalism morphed into the cancerous, self-destructive form of PostModern Liberalism. The Classical Liberals, so arrogant, so proud of The West and its accomplishments, saw the horror of what mankind was capable of doing with the fruits of their inheritance of Greek Thought and Christian Ideals and turned on themselves, on their society, with a self-hatred and a loathing vehemence that has been working to destroy us all for more than 90 years now. It is the most pernicious and destructive force in the world right now, even worse than its ally, Islamofascism, which it is enabling just as it enabled the Soviets and the Nazis 70+ years and more ago. Islam, a wretched, unimaginative, dull and childish meme would be helpless before the West without its endless aid and support.

    To beat your enemy, you generally must know your enemy. Here’s a place to start.

  10. Smock Puppet, 10th Dan Snark Master Says:

    I’m deadly serious, btw — if you read nothing else this week, read that article.

  11. Arnold F. Williams Says:

    WWI disbanded the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, setting the stage for the WWII, the Cold War, and the current one. It’s a bigger influence on history than you’d think, but as a pointer to peace, it’s a failure, Kellogg-Briand Pact or no.

  12. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “Think about the recent wars that have ended through armistice: WWI, which segued almost inexorably into WWII; the 1948 war following the partition of Palestine; the Korean War; and the Gulf War. All of these conflicts exploded again into violence—or have continually threatened to ever since.”

    For an insightful lesson in why an armistice is invariably an unsatisfactory ‘resolution’, that virtually guarantees future conflict read, A difficult lesson

    Major lessons in life are really quite simple but the consequences of failure to learn them are quite extensive and brutal.

  13. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    I’ve just read “What We Lost in the Great War” and I highly recommend it as well.

  14. Artfldgr Says:

    Enemies of the new republic?

  15. Rob Says:

    A hearty thanks to all our veterans. And here’s hoping we do right by all of those who recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans have a tendency to honor their veterans so long as the latter are at a distance. When they’re “up close” and in need of jobs and other things….not so much. How many homeless have I seen in NYC just this month?

    We can do better and should do better. Our vets deserve nothing but the best!

  16. neo-neocon Says:

    Smock Puppet: I have not yet read that article, but I have long thought that that premise (WWI being the watershed where the West lost faith in itself) is absolutely correct.

    I wrote a little bit about it here.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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