[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.