By Arnold Oliver
How in heck did Armistice Day become Veterans Day? Established by Congress in 1926 to “perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations, (and later) a day dedicated to the cause of world peace,” Armistice Day was widely recognized for almost thirty years. As part of that, many churches rang their bells on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – the hour in 1918 that the guns fell silent on the Western Front by which time 16 million had died in the horror of World War I.
To be blunt about it, in 1954 Armistice Day was hijacked by a militaristic US congress and re-named Veterans Day. Today few Americans understand the original purpose of Armistice Day, or even remember it. The message of peace seeking has been all but erased. Worst of all, Veterans Day has devolved into a hyper-nationalistic quasi-religious celebration of war and the putatively valiant warriors who wage it. We no longer have a national day to recognize or reflect upon international peace.
And the identification of warriors as heroes is pretty shaky too. If you are a veteran, and honest about it, you will admit that most of what goes on during wartime is decidedly unheroic, and actual heroes in war are very few and far between.
I have to tell you that when I was in Vietnam, I was no hero, and I did not witness a single act of heroism during the year I spent there, first as a U.S. Army private and then as a sergeant. Yes, there was heroism in the Vietnam War. On both sides of the conflict there were notable acts of self-sacrifice and bravery. Troops in my unit wondered how the North Vietnamese troops could persevere for years in the face of daunting U.S. firepower. U.S. medical corpsmen performed incredible acts of valor rescuing the wounded under fire.
But I also witnessed a considerable amount of bad behavior, some of it my own. There were widespread incidents of disrespect and abuse of Vietnamese civilians, and a large number of truly awful war crimes. Further, all units had, and still have, their share of criminals, con artists and thugs. Most unheroic of all were the U.S. military and civilian leaders who planned, orchestrated, and profited greatly from that utterly avoidable war. I should have resisted the war much sooner from within the military, as many others did.
The cold truth is that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam had nothing to do with protecting American peace and freedom. On the contrary, the Vietnam War was fought to forestall Vietnamese independence, not defend it; and it bitterly divided the American people.
Unfortunately, Vietnam wasn’t an isolated example of an unjust conflict. Many American wars — including the 1846 Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the Iraq War (this list is by no means exhaustive) — were waged under false pretexts against countries that didn’t threaten the United States. It’s hard to see how, if a war is unjust, it can be heroic to wage it.
But if the vast majority of wars are not fought for noble reasons, and few soldiers are heroic, have there been any actual heroes out there defending peace and freedom? And if so, who are they? Well, there are many, from Jesus down to the present. I’d put Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the list along with many Quakers and Mennonites. And don’t forget General Smedley Butler, who wrote that “War is a Racket”.
In Vietnam, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson stopped the My Lai massacre from being even worse.
Another candidate is former U.S. Army specialist Josh Stieber who sent this message to the people of Iraq: “Our heavy hearts still hold hope that we can restore inside our country the acknowledgment of your humanity, that we were taught to deny.” We were honored to be able to host Josh in our home as he walked across the US on a mission of peace while giving away the money he had earned in the military as partial atonement for his role in a thoroughly unjust war.
And how about Chelsea Manning who spent seven years behind bars for exposing more truths about the Iraq war? The real heroes are those who resist war and militarism, often at great personal cost. And now the Harvard fellows include apologists and organizers of torture, but not a whistle blower for peace. Go Figure.
Because militarism has been around for such a long time, at least since Gilgamesh came up with his protection racket in Sumeria going on 5,000 years ago, people argue that it will always be with us.
But many also thought that slavery and the subjugation of women would last forever, and they’re being proven wrong. We understand that while militarism will not disappear overnight, disappear it must if we are to avoid economic as well as moral bankruptcy – not to mention the extinction of our species.
As Civil War General W.T. Sherman said at West Point, “I confess without shame that I am tired and sick of war.” We’re with you, bro.
This year on November 11th, Veterans For Peace will bring back the original Armistice Day traditions. Join them and let those bells ring out.
Arnold “Skip” Oliver writes for PeaceVoice and is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. A Vietnam veteran, he belongs to Veterans For Peace, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.