Friday, November 11, 2011

Armistice Day

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

-Wilfred Owen

Today is Armistice Day.

Yes, yes, we changed it to Veterans' Day, but we shouldn't have. This should still be Armistice Day. Veterans' Day has become nothing more than an annual occasion for everyone to prove how patriotic they are. Have you ever actually thanked a veteran? Did you notice the look on their face? I've seen a lot of veterans have people shake their hands and thank them for their service, and the reaction I see in their eyes is almost never gratitude. I'm not a soldier, so I don't know what it is. It usually looks to me like it's a mixture of annoyance and being reminded of something painful (or nostalgia?). But hey, what do I know? I never served.

Let's face it: every day in the United States is Veterans' Day, such is the nationalistic fervor in this country. When was the last time you were at a sporting event, church service, or social function and someone didn't take a moment to thank veterans?

It's not that veterans don't deserve a day to be honored, of course, but there are lessons for us in Armistice Day. It's much than just thanking soldiers for their service (though it is that!). Armistice Day is not a celebration of war; it's a remembrance of it. It's a remembrance of the day the bloodiest war in the history of the world was called to a halt. No one was defeated, no grand cause was furthered and no nations conquered. After the deaths of millions, there was nothing gained and nothing settled, not even the war itself, and within 30 years there followed an even more horrific sequel.

Armistice Day is a day to remember how awful war is, how awful it is to kill soldiers and civilians, and that in itself makes it a more useful holiday for Americans than most. It's also, however, a reminder of how easy it is to go to war, how little cause our leaders really need to start demanding of our sons and daughters "the last full measure of devotion." It's a reminder of how difficult wars are to end, how wars have a way of expanding well beyond their intended goals and confines. And it's a reminder that things can always get worse.

1 comment:

terling said...

I called and thanked my dad for his time in the Army in Vietnam. He sounded kind of puzzled. I told him it was Veteran's Day and I wanted to call him and thank him. He said it was nice; but to him, the people to thank were the veteran's that had lost something or the families left behind. He came through without ever having to fire a shot outside of the target ranges, repairing radio equipment. I am grateful for that and also for the insight he gave me that day.