Remembering Armistice Day and Celebrating Veterans Day

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Today is Veterans Day. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, an armistice between opposing sides formally ended the fighting of ‘The Great War.”  This was called “the war to end all wars” because the world realized the deadly nature of technology had finally convinced everyone that there was no romance of war.

Perhaps the fact that America learned this lesson a half century earlier in its own Civil War explains our country’s late entry into “The World War” (yet another name used to define the conflict that raged from 1914-1918. Indeed, it was William Tecumseh Sherman who said “War is Hell.” And he should know. His scorched earth policy during his famous March to the Sea is credited with breaking the back of the Confederacy.

The cruelties of war were not lost on Sherman. And he made it his aim to expose the myth of the romance of war. He told the 1879 graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.”

The Great War, with its trench warfare, chemical weapons, and mechanical technology like tanks (which were used improperly when first introduced by the British, at least according to the French) and airplanes (which made it easier to target ground troops).

The combined effects of these devastated the populations of those involved in the conflict. France lost 10.5% of its male population. Germany lost 15.1%. Austria-Hungary lost 17.1%. In Britain, most of the casualties were unmarried men.

Indeed, Arthur Savage, a World War One veteran told an interviewer in 1993, “Of course, what really died in that war was youth, a generation of young men. In my street where I grew up one family lost six sons, all killed in France. The population was out of balance. All through the twenties and thirties there was a massive surplus of women because so many men had been killed.”

Oh, you noticed that, didn’t you? You noticed I called it “World War One.” At the time, obviously, no one called it “World War One.” It took a second, more devastating world war (i.e., “World War Two”) to have the name “World War One” make sense. (Although, some might argue that the two wars were interconnected in such a way that they might be considered one war separated by a twenty-year period of harsh peace.)

Speaking of name changes. On November 11, 1919, on the anniversary of the armistice, President Woodrow Wilson told the American people, “A year ago today our enemies laid down their arms in accordance with an armistice which rendered them impotent to renew hostilities, and gave to the world an assured opportunity to reconstruct its shattered order and to work out in peace a new and juster set of international relations… To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory.”

Thus began the national day of remembrance called “Armistice Day.”

Well, actually, no.

First, by then, the United States already had a national day of remembrance. It was called “Decoration Day” and it was meant to honor all those killed in the Civil War (on both sides). Now held on the last Monday of May, the name was later changed to “Memorial Day” and it now remembers all military men and women killed serving their country.

It wasn’t until June 4, 1926 that Congress passed a resolution asking President Coolidge to annually proclaim November 11 be observed for its significance. Notice, this was only a resolution. It wasn’t binding.

November 11 finally became a legal holiday when Congress enacted a law on May 13, 1938. It was then the official name became “Armistice Day.” It was to honor and remember all those who served in “The Great War.”

Ironically, it was little more than a year later that Germany and Russia decided Poland was a lovely place to invade; thus, starting World War Two.

At the conclusion of that war, a movement began to use the November 11th holiday to honor all veterans. This effort was led by Raymond Weeks, who is now recognized as the “Father of Veterans Day.” His first “national” celebration was held in Alabama in 1947.

It took another seven years, but Congress finally got around to passing a bill declaring Armistice Day as a day for celebrating all veterans. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (fittingly, given his military background) signed the bill into law on May 26, 1954.

Notice, it’s still “Armistice Day.”

A week later, on June 1, 1954, Congress amended the bill, replacing the word “Armistice” with “Veterans.” For then on, the holiday has been known as “Veterans Day.”

Except for a few years in the 1970s, when it temporarily got incorporated into the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and moved to the fourth Monday in October (!?), Veterans Day has always been celebrated on November 11th.

Unlike Memorial Day, which is set aside for those who died, Veterans Day honors all those who served their country, no matter when or where.

Still, let’s not forget its origins. There is much to consider regarding the significance of ending “The War to End All Wars.”

Or at least, once and for all, ending the myth of the romance of war and replacing it with the something more worthy: the true sacrifice of those who bravely serve their country.

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