November 11th, 2016

Veterans Day, Armistice Day

[NOTE: This is a repeat of a previous post.]

Yes, indeed, I am that old—old enough to just barely remember when Veterans Day was called Armistice Day. 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 on the left sidebar). It’s not great poetry by any means, 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 that 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 clearly not yet arrived—and, realistically but sadly, most likely it never will.

12 Responses to “Veterans Day, Armistice Day”

  1. Frog Says:

    Yes, let’s honor and salute the veterans, especially the killed-in-action ones, especially those who died in World War I thanks to Woodrow Wilson, who also gets credit for the armistice. The USA had no dog in that fight. After having won re-election in 1916 in part for “keeping us out of war”, Wilson asked Congress to declare war in 1917 to make “the world safe for democracy.”

    Let us recall that Veterans’ Day was once Armistice Day while we’re at it.

  2. Oldflyer Says:

    Nice historical vignette Neo.

    Took part in an interesting discussion not long ago about which war changed history the most. There is certainly room for argument on either side.

    I think that I would say that WWI changed western civilization the most. Not only was virtually a whole generation of young men lost from the major warring countries, the whole social order in Europe was ripped asunder.

    On the other hand WWII obviously affected Japan. both physically and culturally in an apocalytic manner. Likewise, forces that forever changed the political and social order in China were unleashed. To extend the thought about longer term effects, the whole colonial system began to crumble as a direct result of the war.

    So, the question is debatable.

    I remember WWII quite vividly, since my father and older cousins were gone. The young man next door, and the one across the street, were both pilots–and died. Even at an early age, I had to take note of the pure anguish. I also heard ghastly stories of WWI from an Uncle who was in the U.S. Expeditionary Force at the age of 17; and badly gassed.

    I served in the Navy, but I am embarrassed when people thank me; because my service was beneficial to me in so many ways. Which leads me to the point that there should be formal recognition for the families of those in uniform. They often sacrifice so much, rather in war or peace.

  3. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Prior to WW I, western society was progressing with incredible speed in everything from medicine to industrialization, spreading the franchise to standard of living, agriculture to infrastructure.
    As Poul Anderson said, WW I cut the West’s throat. Everything since is a slow bleeding to death.

  4. lynndh Says:

    I have just returned from a tour of WW1 battlefields, including the place where the good Doctor was stationed. It is now a cemetery. The tour was very sobering. Where there was a battlefield now is located a cemetery. Large cemetery’s. You can still see some of the destruction from that war.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Oldflyer, Richard Aubrey, lynndh:

    If you haven’t read this post of mine on how World War I was a turning point in history, you might want to take a look.

  6. miklos000rosza Says:

    My father served in WW2 under General Patton, as a messenger for him, most often in a jeep. He was blown up twice but survived in oood shape. He had various medals. However the anecdotes he told me were unheroic but decidedly educational and repaid extended contemplation.

  7. J.J. Says:

    A lady shook my hand and thanked me for my service today. I replied that no thanks were necessary because it was my honor to serve.

    No matter what some leftists say, this country is still the best place in the world to live and work. To defend our way of life is an honor.

    Proud to be an American.

  8. Sharon W Says:

    This is the first Veteran’s Day our son is a veteran. My husband and I felt grateful that he returned home safely after 8 years of honorable service in the Marine Corps. In May we visited Normandy and were profoundly moved by the memorial to the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces in defending western civilization from the evil of totalitarian Nazism. There are still veterans in their 80’s and 90’s from that war. A special blessing on them and their families.

  9. Oldflyer Says:

    Sharon, precious few remain, and they are precious. A year ago we lost my cousin, my hero, who was a tail gunner in B-17s over Europe. Later, he was a B-52 pilot in SAC (He took me for my first airplane ride, and since flying was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.)

    I can only imagine the emotions if one visits Normandy. There should be a great sense of pride for the accomplishment–one of the greatest undertakings in peace or war in history. There should also be a profound sense of wonder at the sacrifice.

    Bless you, and bless your son. Today I received emails and phone calls of good wishes from family; and a phone call from my oldest Navy friend. I suggested to each that the unsung heroes are the families who stoically wait; and often sacrifice. My first glimpse of pure anguish was when news came that our next door neighbor, a pilot in WW2, was dead. I did not think his mother would survive. Throughout history loved ones have waited, and feared, that news.

  10. expat Says:

    I won’t go into my family’s vets or my times in Normandy, but I did see this on YouTube:

    Leonard Cohen recites In Flanders Fields.

  11. J.J. Says:

    Oldflyer: “I suggested to each that the unsung heroes are the families who stoically wait; and often sacrifice. My first glimpse of pure anguish was when news came that our next door neighbor, a pilot in WW2, was dead.”

    During WWII, I saw Gold Stars hanging in windows and knew there was great sadness in those houses. The impact of that didn’t fully strike me until I had to set down and write letters to the families of squadron-mates who had been shot down. Those who wait at home are surely as much a part of our defense efforts as those in uniform. When I think of the tears and anguish of families and loved ones down through the years, it seems almost unbearable. Yet, when I examine our country and way of life I realize that, imperfect as it is, it is still a beacon of light in the world. The pain and suffering has been worth it.

    Unfortunately, a very small segment of our population is now involved in our defense and many people know little, if anything, about the sacrifice of their fellow citizens. May Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day, and their meaning, never be forgotten.

  12. Bill Rudersdorf Says:

    I remember seeing a Roman era grave marker with a poppy carved on it. Its symbolic use is fitting, and very old.

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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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