Veterans Day 1968 was just another uncelebrated day in Vietnam. My concept of that day arose from my childhood on military bases, where, in classroom and church, we celebrated Nov. 11 as a Day of World Peace.
We considered it Armistice Day, recognizing the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. It was a somber, sacred remembrance of the horror of The Great War. Intellectually and spiritually, war was renounced, and peace was held as possible.
1919, President Woodrow Wilson declares Armistice Day.
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1926, Congress resolves that 11/11 “should be commemorated and designed to perpetuate Peace through good will and mutual understanding… with all other peoples.”
1938, Congress declares Armistice Day a legal holiday dedicated to the cause of world peace.
1954, Armistice Day is rebranded as Veterans’ Day and still celebrated as a day of peace.
But since Vietnam, Veterans Day has morphed into flag waving, military parading and lip-service veneration of those in military service. Ever-after celebrating not peace, but warriors. Independent of any justification of wars.
This shift in focus from peace to warriors makes sense in a culture where wars are no longer Great, but commonplace. Today the wish for peace is found on holiday cards and far less in foreign policy… peace on earth, good will to men.
With Veterans Day increasingly part of the militarization of American culture, it’s critical to understand basic reasons for war. I’ll let the generals speak:
In his farewell speech, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a growing military-industrial complex, where interests of the military and defense industry intertwine and become our national interest. The retired general counseled citizen vigilance to monitor this complex and civilian-controlled tempering of war machinery with peaceful methods and goals.
Major Gen. Smedley Butler, twice recipient of the Medal of Honor who died the most decorated Marine in history, dedicated the his life after the military to peace. His 1954 self-assessment: “I spent 33 years… in the Corps… during that period, I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle-man for big business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”
Gen. Douglas MacArthur connected the “military-industrial complex” to political culture, identifying a “pattern of misguided policy ... geared to an arms economy… bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria… nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear.”
MacArthur’s critique has never been more poignant. “Induced psychosis” has crescendoed under our (avoid-his-own-call-to-duty) commander-in-chief who now peddles “good guy/bad guy”oversimplification to whip up fear and blind support. A population stifled with fear demands neither accountability nor honesty from its leaders — generals or presidents.
This fear creates excessive adulation of military as moral leaders, as experts on whether a war is justified, how it will be fought and for how long. “That balm of military dictatorships,” retired Col. William Astore asserts, “should be poison to the military of a democracy.” Precisely why the Constitution placed elected representatives over the military, deciding when, if and even how we go to war.
Historian Howard Zinn observed that our leaders “want us to forget what we learned at the Vietnam War’s end: that our leaders cannot be trusted, that modern war is inevitably a war against civilians and particularly children, that only a determined citizenry can stop the government when it embarks on mass murder.”
We need to move beyond the mythology that war is inevitable, effective or noble.
The 2018 midterms are over, and the turnout was high, the sign of an awakening, more vigilant, newly determined citizenry.
This Veterans Day, let’s return the focus to peace, reclaim the spirit of Armistice Day. Let’s take two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. to remind ourselves and our representatives, that peace is possible, and that we expect them to act on our behalf to ensure it.
This Nov. 11 let’s resolve to celebrate and cultivate values of peace: moral courage, integrity, cooperation, compassion, empathy. Let’s renew our dedication to striving after the antidotes to war: economic equity, social justice, individual rights and freedoms, anchored by checks and balances and monitored by alert and knowledgeable citizens.
And let’s remember that it is not incongruent to honor veterans while promoting peace.
To those who speak truth to power and oppose senseless military adventures; who work for peace on any scale, and expose war’s ineffective, ignoble and inglorious nature; who decry civilian deaths; attend to suffering veterans, or challenge foreign policies that undermine our national principles and undercut security, I say: Thank you for your service.
Peter Berres, a Vietnam veteran and educator, is a member of Veterans for Peace. This commentary is part of a series he is writing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of 1968, a year that changed America.