I have a great deal of respect for those who fought in America’s wars, regardless of my disrespect for the wars themselves. I respect veterans for their sacrifice, the pain they went through, and the work they did for what they were told was the honorable goal of fighting for freedom.
I recognize that many of America’s veterans went through a hell on earth that I’ve been fortunate enough never to experience.
It is worth asking: What is the best way to honor them?
On November 11, 1918, the world finally had enough of the irrational killing spree known as World War I. Twenty million individual human beings had perished in what was the largest military conflict the world had yet seen.
World War I convinced much of the world of the insanity of war.
Thanks mostly to mutual defense treaties among nations that had no rational reason to fight other, what started out as a royal family feud and regional squabble exploded into a global bloodbath. Serbia was joined by Britain, France, Belgium, Greece, Romania, Italy, Russia, Portugal, Montenegro, Japan, Brazil and, eventually, the United States, to fight Austria-Hungary’s alliance, which included Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. This madness was triggered when a Bosnian Serb secessionist assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. One act of violence — over one localized territorial dispute — resulted in the loss of lives, property and liberty of tens of millions of human beings.
In one battle alone, the Battle of Verdun, the insanity of war was most apparent. From February to July in 1916, Germans and Frenchmen slaughtered each other relentlessly because their governments told them to. Germany "won" after losing 330,000 soldiers to France’s 350,000. It was all over a worthless piece of land, which, by the end of the battle, was littered with corpses and with about 1,000 rifle shells per square meter. Neither side gained any true strategic victory from the battle.
On November 11, 1918, the world had finally had enough on this insanity. About ten million soldiers and ten million civilians were dead. The war left behind about nineteen million refugees and nine million orphans. In recognition of the horrible war and the glorious peace, November 11 would be known internationally as Armistice Day, a day for remembering the veterans and war dead from around the world, a day to reflect on the moment that the killing ended and the two sides called a truce.
America had likewise had enough. After losing 112,000 of their fellow soldiers, the US troops came home, the US military shrunk, and Americans became utterly disillusioned with war. Americans, by and large, didn’t want to enter the war in the first place, and Woodrow Wilson had won in 1916 on a campaign slogan that he "kept us out of war." More than twenty years after World War I, Americans reelected Franklin Roosevelt for his third term after he promised not to send Americans to die in another global conflict.
In the period after World War I, Americans found themselves extremely disenchanted with war, and, like the rest of the world, they celebrated Armistice Day as a time to remember veterans and appreciate the blessings of peace.
The disastrous effects of World War I continued, however, and US entry had prolonged the conflict, most likely making the outcome worse. The property destruction eventually translated into global depression. The brutal treatment of Germany under the egregiously unfair Versailles Treaty and German suffering under crushing sanctions and debt made the country ripe for the rise of Adolph Hitler. The prolonged war had given Lenin what he needed to establish communism in Russia. As totalitarianism of different strains began to take root throughout Europe, Americans looked across the sea and saw the failures of foreign intervention. World War II would come far too soon, but at least, for the time being, there was armistice.
Well after World War II and at the end of the Korean War, President Eisenhower signed a bill in 1954 that changed the name of the national holiday to Veterans’ Day. There were good intentions: America’s veterans of wars other than World War I deserved some recognition. Interestingly enough, however, the United States had not retracted its military reach after World War II as it now was in a perpetual state of war against Communism. Whereas after World War I, the United States brought its armed forces home, the Cold War guaranteed that the United States would henceforth have little interest in armistice, in truce, in peace.
And our country’s been at war ever since, with more and more veterans to observe every November.
Of course, today we must remember the veterans. This was, after all, a major purpose behind Armistice Day. Ever since the name was changed to Veterans’ Day, however, America’s servicemen and women have not gotten more respect: they have only been sent to far off and increasingly numerous places, to fight battles not in defense of America, but to extend the US empire. They have become cogs of the permanent US war machine. Upon returning home from Vietnam, they were called "baby killers" by misguided protestors who blamed the soldiers for their participation — however unwillingly — in an unjust war. And as insulting as such disrespect was, it seems to me even worse to send people to kill and die for nothing.
We live in a time when war is revered and peace downplayed. To fight or even die for the government is now the greatest, most honorable achievement for an American.
Soldiers fight wars, we have been told, to secure peace. They fight them there so they don’t have to here; they fought then so they don’t have to fight now; they found World War I to "end all wars" in the future.
In the years since the renaming of Armistice Day, we have lost even the pretense that the United States engages in wars to stave off worse ones in the future. Although there is still some of this mythology floating around, those in charge make clear that we will be in an indefinite state of war. The War on Terrorism has only formalized the unwavering wartime stance of the US government since the beginning of the Cold War. In between the end of the epic Cold War and 9/11, our rulers could hardly go a moment without smashing Iraq with sanctions and bombings, funding foreign military adventures, propping up dictatorships, bombing Sudan, attacking Serbia, intervening in Haiti, or spraying chemical poisons on humans and other living things in Latin America.
The War on Terrorism has only made this perpetual war official. The War Party has its new glorious enterprise to keep us in constant conflict with other peoples of the world. Undoubtedly, America’s hawks will celebrate Veterans’ Day, but they will forget about the time when November 11 was a day to remember the warriors while observing the blessings of peace. Instead, they will use the day to lionize war. They will forget the lessons of 1918, and will use a day that was meant to reflect on peace to cheer on more killing and destruction.
We must indeed remember the millions of Americans who have been and continue to be sent to foreign lands to fight for dubious causes and imperial crusades. I don’t think the best way is by sending fresh faces into battle and adding fresh corpses to the graveyards of America’s war dead.
One day, I hope that the last war fought will seem like a distant memory, and that the veterans who pass away will not be replaced by new ones returning from battle.
One day, I hope most Americans will pay respect to the tragic sacrifices of America’s soldiers of the past by observing the beautiful bedrock of civilization that is peace.
One day, I hope we can rejoin the world in a celebration of truce.
One day, I hope we honor America’s veterans by restoring the original meaning of Armistice Day.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.