The difference between Veterans Day and Armistice Day is more than a name. It’s the difference between thanking a veteran for their service and celebrating the end of a bloodbath. It’s the difference between the poetry of Jessie Pope and that of Wilfred Owen. One is a bumper sticker’s version of honor, and the other is saying “thank God this is over.”
Armistice Day hasn’t been November eleventh’s name for more than 60 years in America, but here at Antiwar.com we like to urge changing the clock back. Veterans Day – was initially All Veterans Day, to truly underline the point of keeping the honor broad and sweeping. Remembering a specific time in history, and a specific collection of dead and wounded people is purposeful. Brushing that away does nothing but good things for war and empire.
Certainly you can justify any war you like, but it’s more difficult the more specific you get. Even poppies (very British, but I was handed a few when I was a kid in Pennsylvania) are too closely aligned with World War I. We want to thank every veteran. Every era, every war, it’s the same, and we thank the people who fight in it in the same fashion. Much easier that way than wondering and worrying about which wars were good or bad.
In 1918, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month brought about the end of a war whose effects are still radiating throughout the world. More than 13 million people died, empires fell, precedent for aerial bombing of cities of civilians was set, and entire Middle East borders were doled out by the British. And this is all to say nothing of the inevitability of World War II that followed the moment the bad surrender terms were finalized.
At the same time, November 11 did include something good: the end of a war. Among all the reasons to have a holiday, that seems pretty high on the list. Never mind the difficulties that came later, the war ended, so let’s recall that years later when the world feels tough and violence endless.
I am not entirely dissuaded from these sentiments. However, during a podcast with the great Sheldon Richman on Tuesday, we got into a tangent on the Armistice Day thing. I said I was always bothered by the loss of the brilliant Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before the armistice. Owen was a fascinating guy. A young poet and capable soldier who became brilliant while suffering shellshock and disillusionment with the war, he was taught by – but then, in my opinion, surpassed – poet Siegfried Sassoon who survived the war. Sassoon’s war poems are great and full of acid and disdain. But Owen managed to meld the romance and and form of the Keats fan he was with an anger and graphic clarity that summed up war better than anyone should have to. Do yourself a favor and read his work. (Both men’s, actually.)
Owen had a soldier’s sense of duty. Like Sassoon, Owen suffered physical and mental injuries, hated the war, but still felt like he had to get back to “his men.” And so he died a week before the war’s end.
Richman countered my sadness over Owen with an even more depressing thought. What about those who died on the 11th itself? There were six hours between the signing of the Armistice and the official end time. That poetic 11/11 touch plus the limits of technology meant that thousands of men still mobilized. While people were cheering in major cities back home, there were thousands of casualties, including hundreds dead on that last day.
There are several heartbreaking stories of final moments, including that of the French runner who was killed at 10:50 after actually delivering the news of the Armistice.
The very last man to die may have been American Private Henry Gunther. Gunther was part of a unit attempting to take a German gun post. He was reportedly killed at 10:59 am. The child of German immigrants – which just gilds the lily of his absurd, wasted death – he didn’t sign up for the war willingly. In fact, he even wrote a letter to a friend back home in which he advised getting out of the draft. For this, Gunther lost his rank as sergeant. The story goes that the Germans tried to dissuade Gunther from charging, but they were forced to shoot him. Regardless, the official record says “Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.”
In other places, deaths happened after 11 am. A friendly German was killed by some Americans who didn’t get – or accept – the news that they were supposed to stop being enemies.
Some generals did get word of the signing, but some either seemed unwilling to trust the Germans, or actually wanted to end the war with one last hurrah. Major-General William Wright lost a score of men when he ordered an assault on a town so that they could all take a bath after the battle. There were other horrifying decisions by Generals that were controversial in the days and years after the war, but nobody seemed willing to do anything about it.
Richman raised this point in our podcast, and he gets full credit for inspiring this piece today: even Armistice Day was a fraud. It was rife with fatal bureaucracy and last-ditch attempts at war glory, and deaths so futile that the staunchest hawk would have a hard time finding a noble spin to put on them. And so, though Armistice Days beats Veterans Day still, maybe we should go back another four years for the best celebration of peace.
Christmas 1914 was the armistice that could have changed the world. There are a few sad stories of nervous soldiers shooting would-be trucers, but it was still a spontaneous stoppage of the fighting. That date was important to the men, and so they stopped fighting on their own. And many of them would never have started again without the threat of court martial.
Whether you prefer to celebrate Armistice Day, Veterans Day, or neither, it is still best to forget about soldiers in the abstract. An archetype of a soldier-hero and a nebulous feeling of respect and thanks does neither them or the world a favor. Remember real people who died. Remember how many of them didn’t need to die. It is not disrespectful to Wilfred Owen or to Henry Gunther to say they died in vain. It is an acknowledgment of the lives they didn’t get to live, because they were trying to win one more inch of earth for the men who treated them like toys to play with.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.