Conflicted holiday of things past and present
It was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918 that President Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the celebration we know as Veterans Day. It was called Armistice Day and intended as a paean to the heroic deeds of the soldiers who died in World War I. Business was intended to be suspended, not celebrated with sales and consumer specials. Such is life in the modern world: Holidays are but another opportunity for marketing, rather than the marking of important events or remembrance of things past.
Consider for a moment Wilson’s words: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in this country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations …” Thus the holiday was intended to honor both those who died in service to their country and the peace making that went with the armistice of the Great War, the Treaty of Versailles.
By the time this column is printed, the celebrations in Cambridge for Veteran’s Day will be ended and those who attended — the few veterans and their families assembled in the cemetery, the assorted dignitaries — will have put away their uniforms, their gold stars, their flags, their speeches and the bunting. Before becoming a city councilor, I can’t say that these holidays had much meaning for me. I didn’t have any relatives that had served in the military, and I came of age during the Vietnam conflict. I wasn’t an anti-war activist as some would believe, actually going to classes during college that were blockaded by demonstrators at the University of Michigan. But like many in my generation I grew to hate the Vietnam War and all it came to represent, the lies and duplicity of government and the enormous toll it took on a country divided by its meaning.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I undertook my duties upon being appointed to lead the Veterans Committee and sent letters to various posts to convene a meeting to find out what these men (they were mostly men) needed from the city. I began to learn a great deal about the struggles veterans faced and the residual conflicts between those who served in World War II and those who served in Vietnam. For the first time in my life I attended collations and events at Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and began to appreciate the refuge such smoke-filled, dark places had for the men and women of war. At one particular meeting I arranged at City Hall, I was stunned to watch the conflict between generations of veterans unfold before me as each side hurled invective at the other for being less patriotic and less strong.
What did these veterans need? Acknowledgement. Attention. Empathy. Respect. Community. Things most humans need, but here it was usually tied to a particular event that changed their lives — a war.
I never understood their fraternity, though, until I left the City Council and worked in war-torn countries, observing firsthand what war does to a community — those who fight and those whose lives are turned upside down because of it. And because it is difficult to describe the emotional impact of bombed-out buildings and empty towns, I found that when I returned home to Cambridge, all I wanted to do was attend a veterans ceremony, as if being around those who had fought in wars would give me some solace, the somber saluting of flags and sound of taps making the horror less vivid or perhaps helping make sense of it.
Wars destroy cities. Wars destroy lives. It is that plain and simple. There is no electricity, garbage collection, phones, television, stores, hardly any food or water, and there are no hospitals. After it is over, there are usually no jobs. After it is over, there are people with horrific wounds, psychic and physical. It brings out the worst in people, and the best. It is the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, only it is brought about by politicians who decide to go to war, rather than by natural causes. It kills our people; it kills “their” people; and no one survives unscathed.
On this Veterans Day week, let us pause to remember things past and present, especially the words of Wilson, who thought it fitting to honor the people who gave their lives to a cause and yet recognized it as an opportunity to align ourselves with “peace and justice.” Acknowledging the one — those who bear the direct sacrifice — does not preclude the honoring of the armistice and the end to conflict. Perhaps if we make an effort to join both aspects, it will help us make sense of why it happens and how we can avoid it in the future.
Katherine Triantafillou is a lawyer, international democracy consultant and former Cambridge city councilor.