I don’t believe your toasts to “absent comrades”

Although I was in London this summer while they were abuilding, I made a point of not going to see the poppies. (Here’s a great description of them, though, by a fellow Armitage fan.)

I’m a bureaucrat now so I not only have the day off from work, I am also not grading or doing research or thinking I can use this 24 hours to catch up. Great day for me. I slept two additional hours and now I get to write.

But first, Veterans’ Day. I’ve written about it every year. Every year I hear about the war to end all wars. Every year I pray for an end to war.

Poppy-300x225When I was a little girl, and the last men were just home from Vietnam, the VFW sold paper poppies that looked like this one for a quarter. You could buy one as you walked into a grocery store or a bank. Not sure what they used the money for. You wrapped the green strand, which usually a very light form of wire, around your collar button.

When I was a teenager we had an assembly in school at the eleven hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and we read “Flanders Fields” and there was a color guard appearance and we stood for a moment of silence.

We honored everyone’s sacrifices. Then we went off to fourth hour to practice the quadratic formula.

But honestly — is thinking about something really honoring it? If we think about it for ten minutes and then it’s over?

While I was driving to my café of choice this morning I listened to a BBC report about the situation in Syria. 1,500 more U.S. troops are going to Iraq. Didn’t we withdraw from Iraq? Oh, yeah, my bad. There are still 24,500 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan although we withdrew from there, too.

In the café, as I write, the Navy ROTC kids — because now I am of the age that they could be my kids — are wearing some form of a summer dress uniform and buying coffee after their ceremonial obligations have ended. Their fellow students had the luxury of staying home. They’re debating whether it’s too cold to go to the beach, and if they should stay home and study this afternoon. I think of my student who went to Afghanistan once and almost twice and then didn’t go. He did get to OCS and he graduated, after which I lost track of him. Nothing against Asia, but I hope he’s not there now.

Let’s remember our relatives who were and are veterans. I have many relatives who have served and I do that. My mother’s grandfather. His relative whose tomb we stumbled over recently. Neither of my grandfathers, for some reason, but five of my father’s nine uncles, two of my mother’s three. My father and both my uncles. Three of my four first cousins.

I respect what they did for us, for me.

But I’m done kidding myself that remembering them — dead or alive — honors their sacrifices.

It doesn’t matter if people write poems about the war and the war dead that make us proud or make us cry.

It doesn’t matter if we put the words and the poppies on the bodies of our children —

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vlcsnap-2014-11-11-11h10m08s156A child (Tex Jacks) reads In Flanders Fields at a war memorial in Spooks 7.1. My cap.

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or our actors —

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Screen shot 2013-11-11 at 1.42.35 AM

Richard Armitage wears a “Remembrance Day” poppy on ITV’s This Morning during the Spooks 7 promotional blitz, October 27, 2008.

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or if the actors recite the poems — this one is taken so egregiously out of context these days that Chelsea Clinton had it read at her wedding —

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or even if the actors also participate personally in the commemoration or express their sympathy with it:

Nothing changes.

I’m not criticizing anyone to whom the Veterans’ Day pieties mean something. My family has its shares of corpses and casualties to war. I do not seek to minimize anyone’s sacrifice or the personal memories of our loved ones. But at the same time, I say: Please don’t give me “never again” if we’re not going to try honestly for never again. If it’s only a moment of silence during a toast to “absent comrades” — spare me. If we want to honor their sacrifices, let us make sure that no one has to make those sacrifices ever again.

A Veterans’ Day on which we are industriously engaged in making more veterans? Let’s take care of the ones we already have created.

War does not end war. Only peace ends war. We are the only ones who can make war — and we are also the only ones who can make peace.

~ by Servetus on November 11, 2014.

37 Responses to “I don’t believe your toasts to “absent comrades””

  1. You are right…nothing changes. It never has, it never will IMO – humans seem inherently prone to violence under certain circumstances no matter how “civilized” we think we’ve become. I guess for me personally, I don’t remember veterans in service of any basically disingenuous “greater” purpose…I mark the day for the people I’ve known and the lives they’ve led.

    I think you and I probably differ on this since however much I wish it (and I do), I don’t think that permanent global peace is possible…I don’t think it has been possible since there have been more than 50,000 humans walking the planet at one time. Not exactly uplifting, I know.

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    • Everyone should honor people who they want to honor for the reasons they want to honor them — keeping in mind that that means that Germans honoring relatives who served in the Wehrmacht knowing what was happening fits in that category as well as a private remembrance of the positive aspects of what was going on. I don’t have a problem with that, because after a lot of stewing, I have abandoned the distinction between just and unjust war in the last ten years or so — but a lot of people I know are horrified by that possibility. Given the utter disingenuousness of most of the U.S. initiated wars that have occurred in our adult lives, I would prefer to honor veterans as victims of our own state and its plutocrats, rather than heroes.

      Violence: Maybe we can change the circumstances. I don’t know and I’ll be lucky to live out my three score and ten with a lot of work. I know if i don’t ask for it, it won’t happen.

      Something that I wrestle with a lot, and I think this is a consequence of growing up in the US in the 1980s, was the sudden decision that everything public can be rephrased as a matter of private meaning, and because it develops a private meaning, then the public meaning can’t be questioned. If I say, I oppose war, then I somehow deride or undermine veterans as a group or specific veterans about whom I or others care. I think we need a public solution to the problem of all war — me brooding in private isn’t enough. Or, more accurately as I am saying here, I think I am going to stop brooding in private. Either I should act publicly or I should stop brooding. Life is short. I am wasting my time otherwise.

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  2. If Veteran’s Day was created to set aside time to contemplate, then you have done and are encouraging just that.
    The symbols and rituals will never accomplish anything unless it sparks self-examination. In my mind, the most effective way to observe the seriousness of the day is to re-commit to rooting out of mind divisiveness, basic selfishness, and anything that engenders or promotes a ‘we vs. them’ attitude.
    Peace can’t come to the world until it’s first expressed individual by individual. We all have a part to play in the mental atmosphere of the world. Today is just a day to define for yourself what you think your own contribution can be.

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    • Admittedly some of my sentiment comes from long years of living in a country where mourning the war dead or honoring their service constitutes a significant political problem — but while I think private pondering is important, if it stops there, it is, IMO, insufficient.

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  3. Reblogged this on Swooning Maruca.

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  4. The best piece I ever read about veterans’ day, Servetus. Thank you !
    As a child, I always wondered, why my mother objected to participate in any ceremony or procession the veterans did in and around the church of my village, though we had quite a few fallen (what an euphemistic name for the stupidly sent to slaughter family men) in our family. Now I do understand and wholeheartedly agree with your post, Servetus.
    For me each war is a series of failures beforehand and each excuse for the necessity of war is an error in itself. We do not even try to change anything or try to listen, instead we finance and need test areas for our weapons industry.

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    • I remember the first time someone showed me the letters that people at home got during the war with the phrases “gefallen” and “ist im Feld gefallen” and thinking, what a ridiculous euphemism.

      And yeah — this is a super extension of my earlier point. Private remembrance that means we can’t be honest about war in public plays right into the hands of the weapons industry.

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  5. sometimes that 10 minute program at school is the only exposure children get to the sacrifices that have been made for our freedom. sometimes receiving that plastic poppy from the VFW is the only time ordinary citizens are forced to come into contact with living breathing examples of those sacrifices. sometimes the parades are the only time we get to see respect and honor for our armed forces in action. I think remembering and honoring can and should lead to learning from and preventing. it’s a shame that it’s only one day out of 365.

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    • “I think remembering and honoring can and should lead to learning from and preventing.” I agree. But they quite demonstrably don’t, given the way our politicians behave — who constantly engage in these ceremonies — I haven’t looked to see what the Obamas are doing today, but I’m sure it involves something or other remembrance / military oriented. So what are ten minutes against years of this stuff? I’m not saying that to be polemical. I’m asking — if people who spend significant chunks of their lives doing this don’t have their behavior changed, why do ten minutes make any difference?

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      • but not having the public remembrances could easily cause it to be forgotten, swept under the rug. not seeing and hearing from those who have experienced war themselves could easily confine it to our peripheral vision. yes, politicians and business leaders use the heightened patriotism to their advantage, and ordinary citizens who could care less about it 364 days of the year go all out and over the top on this one day. but if nothing else, I would not want to take this one day a year away from the veterans themselves. the recognition, respectful thank yous, and social opportunities it provides can be worth more than any medal.

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        • If war happens whether or not its veterans are recognized, as a means of preventing war, recognition of veterans is pointless. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t potentially recognize it for other reasons, including personal ones, although I would prefer a form of recognition of these sacrifices that had some actual teeth (fully funding the VA hospitals at the level of need, for instance). But it seems to me that the best way to recognize someone’s sacrifice would be to try to build a world in which similar sacrifices are no longer necessary because no one wants to engage in war. I can see ways in which a celebration of Veterans’ Day (or other holidays) could promote that — but it would have to be a substantially different one than the one we have now. It would have, above all, to focus continually on loss and destruction, I suspect.

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  6. I mean, this is a world in which a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has ordered air strikes on Syria. Orwell was right about so much.

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    • Yeah, you’re clearly right. This bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize was particularly annoying. All this hollow, hypocritical speeches on the subject are mainly empty rhetoric, really hard to stand (esp so over the years), and I more or less stopped to listen. Coming from a German family, the war was an ever present topic through my upbringing. Being in the Friedensbewegung (peace movement) over decades and having had the strong ideal of a pacifistic world, now, the older I get the more I’m thorougly disappointed that history seems to repeat itself on and on… Not that I actually ever truly believed in a mankind capable of learning…..
      Still so, nothing wrong for me with “Volkstrauertag”, as there need to be time (ritual) for mourning over all the losses and to . And as there are so many “Völker” (nations) we all have our private ponderings…..against oblivion.

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      • I think in Germany for better or for worse (depending on one’s perspective) the whole idea that a soldier could be a hero was highly controversial after ’45 … contrast to the US, where our soldiers have always been heroes (except when we are forgetting about them entirely)

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  7. Very interesting post. Something to think about on Remembrance Day. Thank you.

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  8. Well said. SO sick of the way govts have hijacked these anniversaries to justify and glamourise yet more war.
    We need peace makers. And no not like Liar Tony Blair.

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  9. The celebrations of Remembrance Day and Veterans’ Day leave me bitter. I have cared for veterans, nursed them, supported them, listened to them, and tried to help them through deaths far worse than any on the battlefield. I honoured them with years of work and struggle. I have protested against wars and been tear-gassed: I have taught children that war is never a solution; I have not given up activism for peace. I don’t wear a red poppy, nor do I give a damn for the stupid poems. Yet I toast “absent friends”, who, in the absence of war, could have lived better lives in so many ways. I could not save them, and for that I am heartily sorry.

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  10. There’s nothing to add to that post. It’s how I feel too and I am growing more and more desperate seeing how our political leaders just go on and on with one war after the other… 😦

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  11. I was in Belfast (i.e. the UK) when you wrote this post, and unfortunately could not comment earlier. But this is one of those posts where you have expressed exactly what I feel, too. I come from it from a totally different war/veteran memorial culture than you, of course – my country, having been responsible for the two WWs, does not do large public commemorations like this. Maybe it is the shame, maybe it is because we feel that we can’t because we were the perpetrators. Maybe it is because this kind of institutionalised, prescribed grieving feels dangerous to us, post-WWII? I never even knew about the poppies until I was a young adult. And in many ways it feels almost like a placeholder ritual to me – something that is done because “one has to”.
    War does not end war. Neither does wearing a poppie. For me, it has taken on a rather hollow symbolism. I know for a fact that the ubiquity of the poppy on showbiz lapels in the UK in early November is a prescribed obligation. You simply won’t be let on TV unless you wear the thing. I take it that most wearers only do it because they have to – not because they believe in what it stands for. They might as well leave it.
    As an ex-historian I am very aware of the commemoration days that litter our calendar. But what brought it home to me was not the annual state-and-church-ordered grieving on Remembrance Sunday but one summer spent cleaning the war cemetaries in France with a youth group in 1987. Endless rows of white stone crosses on the old battlefields. We tended the lawns and weeded the beds. And we spent a day repainting the crosses. There were so many young men, their dates of birth and death inscribed on the stone. I could not stop my hand from shaking when I was carefully refilling the carved numbers with grey paint. They were the same age as me. Barely 18.

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    • I grew up and still live in Germany which means I have grown up in the same culture as you Guylty and I think you’re right about most Germans’ attitude to “war/veteran memorial culture”. My grandfather’s grave is on a WW2 cemetery in the Netherlands. He died at the age of 31 in September 1944. Until the summer of that year he had been playing the violin in a musical regiment and when he was summoned to the front line he knew he would die there. I read a letter which he wrote to his sister, saying goodbye and asking her and her husband to look after his young wife and their 4-year-old daughter (my mother). His grave on that cemetery is one of 32.000. As you said they are all marked by white crosses and many of the soldiers buried there were much younger than my grandfather. I have visited the grave about 5 or 6 times and I agree – seeing all those crosses makes the horror of war visible (and yes I am aware that the Germans caused all that horror). Of course it’s right to commemorate dead soldiers all over the world. None of them wanted to become a dead heor. Most of them probably had a horrible death and their legacy – for me – is to prevent war. I don’t find much of that legacy expressed during Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day but then I am only watching from afar…

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      • That was really interesting to read, Suse (and I am glad that my view is shared by other Germans!). While at home in Germany a couple of weeks ago, I visited a graveyard in a neighbouring town where my grandfather’s family had lived. We had come to see my greatgrandmother’s grave, but on the way we passed the local war memorial and just on the spur of the moment I stopped to check whether my greatgrandfather’s name was on it. It was – died as a sailor in 1918 in Kiel when his ship was torpedoed. He was a shopkeeper before the war – and a Jew! He died for that country like all the other Germans, no matter what religion. But well, that’s a different story. The point was that it was the first time ever for me that I had actually stopped at a war memorial to look for a familiar name. It was never done by my family, neither my mother’s nor my father’s side…

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    • Seeing Flanders for the first time — both the huge cemeteries and the places that were destroyed and/or are still ruined, a century later — was a huge turning point for me in all of this. All of that destruction, now beautifully and meticulously administrated and cultivated … and in such an unbelievable amount (sort of like the piles of shoes at Auschwitz) … and then the many German war graves that just say the number of soldiers who are buried there.

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      • What bugs me about the war cemetaries is that they are divided by nationality. The trenches of the war are recreated in peace time, while death did not distinguish between the nationalities. That’s why that Sainsbury’s Christmas ad that is currently going viral is such a sadly uplifting clip – the Christmas truce of 1914, where for a couple of days soldiers on both sides were defined by their shared humanity – and not their nationality. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM

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  12. Thanks for linking to my post, I think the idea of the poppies at Tower of London was interesting and more like artwork than anything else; it’s a shame that nothing has changed since then

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  13. There is justifiable seriousness in looking at modern war-mongering and in feeling the frustration that people, tribes, and nations still resort to violence as means to an end.
    As much as cynicism is accepted as the doctrine of the day, I think our judgment may be biased since most news we take in is concentrated on the dramatic and negative. And yes, it’s fact and we need to be aware of what’s going on, but is it really true that nothing on the stage of national politics and war has changed in a hundred years? And that the collective
    mentality of society has not evolved or progressed at all?
    I have a book on my tbr list that details how much violence has declined over time and why.
    (By Harvard professor Steven Pinker.)http://www.amazon.com/The-Better-Angels-Our-Nature-ebook/dp/B0052REUW0/ref=pd_sim_kstore_2?ie=UTF8&refRID=1V55KNMFZ4FE2QV8BWR2
    Nationalism and patriotism often fosters limited, exclusionary, and self-righteous views. I think more and more educated and forward-thinking people are starting to see themselves as global citizens. And for the better, I feel!
    Keeping ourselves outlined in groups and defining ourselves by the past is going to have to give way to more productive and inclusive thought.
    So much to think on. Thanks for bringing up the topic for discussion.

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    • I don’t buy the argument that violence has lessened over time. I think it has changed in nature, become less personal in many ways. The soldier of today engages ideally from a computer on another continent via an interface that mimics a videogame. We have fewer men in the field because our technology is better, but the injuries are just as bad or worse. Soldiers are more likely to survive them because medicine has improved so much, but we will pay billions of dollars to rehabilitate and support the soldiers from the Gulf Wars because of that (in earlier generations, people died of horrible wounds, but today we save their lives and leave them to deal with the consequences). The other argument I’d make is that it really doesn’t matter if there’s “less” violence (whatever that means) because violence still breeds violence — and that happens on a personal level. There may be fewer homicides in the U.S. at the moment, but that doesn’t make us grieve any less for the ones that occur (unless, of course, they occur in a slum, in which case many of us turn our heads).

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  14. […] attempts to make meaning, but I’ve become hostile to anniversaries that are mobilized for political purposes or tinged with marketing […]

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  15. […] you know me, you know this kind of commemorative holiday makes me increasingly angry. And I read this week that one of the U.S.’s leading presidential candidates is promising […]

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  16. […] Last year, with links to previous years. […]

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