Today, Nov. 11th, is the U.S. federal holiday that is currently known as Veterans Day. In contrast with Memorial Day, which is celebrated on the last Monday of May and honors those Americans who have died in military service, Veterans Day honors all those who have served in the military and in particular those who are still living. Did you know, however, that Veterans Day used to be Armistice Day, a day for remembering the tragedies of war and for recommitting to peace?
World War I, known at the time as “the war to end all wars,” officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28th, 1919. However, it was on Nov. 11th, 1918 when Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiégne, France, thus ending military fire. This date resonated with many people, and in 1926 the U.S. Congress passed a resolution that the “recurring anniversary of [November 11, 1918] should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” (“Veterans Day 2022”). Thus Nov. 11th became known as Armistice Day, and in 1938, after numerous states designated the day as a legal holiday, a federal act approved it as a federal holiday.
The following year, World War II began, soon followed by the Korean War. Due to the bidding of veterans’ service organizations, Armistice Day was renamed to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor U.S. veterans of all wars, not just WWI. Between 1971 and 1975, due to the Uniform Monday Holiday act, the holiday was moved to a Monday in October, but after many states disapproved of the change (note that states have the liberty to set their own holidays, though typically they follow the lead of the federal government), the date was moved back to Nov. 11th.
I found it fascinating to read about this history of Nov. 11th as a holiday, as it shows how a country that lost much life and wellbeing to war (for war causes not just deaths, but also much trauma and disability, both of those who served in war and of civilians) can quickly shift from a collective desire for a world without war to a once-again “patriotic,” military-centric narrative. Messages abound in the days leading up to Veterans Day asking us to thank veterans for serving the country and thus “protecting our freedoms.” Yet with Election Day having just happened, when millions of Americans went to vote against those candidates who would take away our personal freedoms and even the integrity of our democracy itself, I feel more thankful today for these voters, and for those people who canvassed and organized perhaps even when they themselves could not vote.
I have long been a pacifist, believing that war is not the answer. There are certainly nuances when you consider the difference between a powerful state seeking power over another and an oppressed people who must make their own (often myriad) choices about the best ways to defend themselves against military and police powers, but in general, especially speaking from a U.S. international affairs standpoint, war is not the answer. Yet regarding how we should or should not recognize Veterans Day, my thoughts and feelings are complex.
I believe that we do have a duty to respect and honor veterans, but not because of some “necessity” or “justice” of war. We should honor veterans because they have undergone intense, traumatic experiences that the rest of us can hardly imagine. To those who come out of active military service traumatized and otherwise physically and/or psychologically hurt by their experiences (and by the propagandizing machine that is the U.S. government in conjunction with the media), I respect them and wish them inner peace. And to those who continue to strongly believe in military fights for freedom even after their service, I honor them and wish them peace as well.
I can have a deep respect for someone who so fervently believes in certain principles that they would risk sacrificing their lives for them, while also holding my own contrasting perspective. Perhaps in the presence of a patriotic veteran, I can be reminded of my own commitment to social ideals and the need for me to do what I can for a just world.
And it is through this everyday work for justice that we as humanity may eventually achieve global peace — not a world without struggle, but one in which we all take up the rightful internal and external struggles for the good. For peace is a continual process, and without justice — without the deep, critical questioning and dismantling of our unjust institutions and status quo and radical rebuilding of better ways of living together — there will be no peace.
“Armistice/Remembrance Day Is for Ending War.” World BEYOND War, https://worldbeyondwar.org/armistice-remembrance-day/
History.com editors. “Armistice Day: World War I ends.” A&E Television Networks, 10 Mar. 2010 (updated 9 Nov. 2022), https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/history-of-veterans-day
History.com editors. “Veterans Day 2022.” A&E Television Networks, 14 Oct. 2009 (updated 7 Nov. 2022), https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/world-war-i-ends
“History of Veterans Day.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 Jul. 2015, https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp
Additional resource: FCNL on Peacebuilding
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