On November 11th at 11 in the morning, we practice a moment of silence for two minutes to remember the day we reached an accord and agreed to lay down arms after the brutality of World War 1. A century ago we stopped fighting. Soldiers came home. It was a time very like this. A time of deep economic divisions. A time of great uncertainty. A time when disease wracked the world, exacerbated by the homecoming military. This day is also Old All Hallows’, being close to the point in the seasonal year that marked the ancient feast of the dead, Samhain, before the switch to the Gregorian calendar. For millennia we have been remembering our dead at this time as the sun approaches the winter solstice.
The rest of the world calls this day Armistice Day, the day we stopped using weaponry against each other, or Remembrance Day, the day we remember those who died fighting in the muddy trenches. We remember the day we laid aside aggression. We honor the lost with red poppies and candlelight vigils. In the US, we call it Veteran’s Day. This is not quite the same thing. In this country this day has lost some of its meaning. It is not remembrance of the day we stopped fighting. Many people in this country could not even name the war that ended on this day, nor even that this day is remembered for the ending of that war to end all wars.
I want to be clear right now. I do not mean to take any regard away from those who have fought our many wars. Our veterans deserve to be respected and remembered this day and every day. They deserve far more than flag waving, parades and empty tokens. They deserve acknowledgement. They are fighting the endless wars that capitalism has raged against the earth. And they are dying. They don’t need medals of honor; they need to be brought home, fully. They need to be able to lay down their weapons, including all the sharp retorts endlessly firing in their minds. They need to put gruesome memories to rest and remember that their wars have ended. They need us to stop waging war. They need a final armistice.
On this day of remembrance, we would do well by our veterans to remember the day we ended the war to end all wars. And remember that in the century since we made that pledge to them we have not spent more than a decade free from the bondage of armed conflict. The chains are everywhere in our culture and most of all on those we use as our weapons.
This day, before 1918, was Martinmas. It was and still remains traditional to cull the herds and flocks of those animals that can not be fed over winter. It is a bloody time. Even the most pragmatic farmer dreads this time of year. Killing is not a native inclination, and most of us never learn to tolerate it. We recoil even from killing insects. We loath killing a mammal that has eyes like our own, that responds to pain and death in exactly the same ways we do. It is in fact dreadful. And now remember that this is what a soldier is trained to do, what a soldier is expected to do.
And we make our children into soldiers. It is very difficult to train an adult mind to kill, so we begin the brain-molding young. We call our foot-soldiers infantry, acknowledging that most of these people who must kill directly never reach psychological adulthood. They never make the neurological connections that would allow them to question a command, that would enable them to act morally and consciously. This is by design. We put game consoles into the hands of adolescents to inure them to killing. We put ROTC programs into schools to remove questions form young minds and overcome psychological barriers, fashioning them into drones who are able to act against nature. And we wonder why most soldiers are damaged.
We call this day Martinmas because it is the old feast of St Martin of Tours, a fourth century bishop of Caesarodunum (Tours). Martin was a soldier. Most depictions show him astride a white horse, holding his cloak to his sword. The military trappings are emphasized in most works of art. He is patron saint of soldiers. However, he was canonized not for his martial strength but because he laid down his arms, giving away everything he had to help those in need. That gesture, holding his cape to the blade, is the memory of the day he cut his cloak in two so that a beggar man would not go unclothed in the cold. The day Martin walked away from the white horse and the military life and became a simple priest. If he is our patron saint of fighting men, perhaps it would be good to follow his lead and walk away from the fight — while lending whatever aid we can give to those who need it.
Last year on this day, an enormous flag was raised over my town. By all accounts this was a political ploy by a not altogether savory person, a person who to my knowledge is not a veteran, a person who sought to use Veterans’ Day to grandstand. (A person who, thankfully, just lost his bid to be elected to Vermont state government.) This seems to me to be the opposite of laying down arms. It is the opposite of remembering. It is not even honoring the veterans who were forced to walk in the shadow of that giant flag. I don’t doubt that St Martin would have torn it down and used it to spread warmth in these cold days.
Today is Remembrance Day. It might be good if we remember what that means.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022