We Need a New Armistice Day

Remarks at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, Calif., on October 12, 2018.

Video slowly uploading will be at https://youtu.be/jKhnteeo4k8

Exactly at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918, 100 years ago this coming November 11th, people across Europe suddenly stopped shooting guns at each other. Up until that moment, they were killing and taking bullets, falling and screaming, moaning and dying, from bullets and from poison gas.

Wilfred Owen put it this way:

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.

Sweet and proper it is to die for a nation. So they have said for centuries. It may be proper, never sweet. Also never beneficial. Also never to be appreciated or thanked or imagined to be some sort of service or honored, only mourned and regretted. The largest number of those who do it today in the United States die for their nation through suicide. The Veterans Administration has said for decades that the single best predictor of suicide is combat guilt. You won’t see that advertised in many Veterans Day Parades. Bitter truth is never as proper as sweet lies. There are very few parades on Conscientious Objectors Day, but in a wise society headed in the right direction there would be.

And then they stopped, at 11:00 in the morning, one century ago. They stopped, on schedule. It wasn’t that they’d gotten tired or come to their senses. Both before and after 11 o’clock they were simply following orders. The Armistice agreement that ended World War I had set 11 o’clock as quitting time.

Henry Nicholas John Gunther had been born in Baltimore, Maryland, to parents who had immigrated from Germany. In September 1917 he had been drafted to help kill Germans. When he had written home from Europe to describe how horrible the war was and to encourage others to avoid being drafted, he had been demoted (and his letter censored).

After that, he had told his buddies that he would prove himself. As the deadline of 11:00 a.m. approached on that final day in November, Henry got up, against orders, and bravely charged with his bayonet toward two German machine guns. The Germans were aware of the Armistice and tried to wave him off. He kept approaching and shooting. When he got close, a short burst of machine gun fire ended his life at 10:59 a.m.

Henry was the last of the 11,000 men to be killed or wounded between the signing of the Armistice six hours earlier and its taking effect. Henry Gunther was given his rank back, but not his life.

The physically and mentally wounded, and the impoverished, would continue to die for some time. The flu spread by the war would take even more victims, and the disastrous manner of eventually negotiating the peace would predictably — by facilitating a sequel, Mass Insanity Part II, the Return of the Sociopaths — take more lives than the war and the flu combined. The great war (which I take to have been great in approximately the Make America Great Again sense) would be the last war in which some of the ways people still talk and think about war would be true. The dead outnumbered the wounded. The military casualties outnumbered the civilians. The killing took place largely on battlefields. The two sides were not, for the most part, armed by the very same weapons companies. War was legal. And lots of really smart people believed the war lies sincerely and then changed their minds. All of that is gone with the wind, whether we care to admit it or not.

But I want to back up a couple of months to September 28, 1918. That was the day of the stupidest parade I’ve ever heard of. And, let’s be frank, this is a world awash in stupidity. Donald Trump wanted to hold a weapons parade in Washington this November. That was not exactly a genius idea. It was not as insidious as renaming a holiday for veterans but barring Veterans For Peace chapters from participating in parades, as some cities do every November. Trump’s proposal was more vulgar, and also embarrassing. Vulgar because it would have advertised the mass murder machinery of an operation the U.S. public is supposed to think of as philanthropic. Vulgar because it would have promoted some of the biggest campaign bribers, excuse me – contributors, who operate within the pristine U.S. election system that is already under threat from nefarious if bewildering Facebook ads bought by the dastardly commies, I mean Russians. And embarrassing because traditionally the weapons parades have been used when there was a pretense of a victory, as during the Gulf War. Boy did that victory work out well for everyone, huh? To hold a weapons parade just because it’s been so many years since anyone could pretend a victory for longer than it takes to stand on an aircraft carrier in San Diego might be, as someone might tweet about it, sad.

Why was this shindig cancelled? That it would have cost millions of dollars seems like a sensible reason except that that’s a rounding error in a subcontract entirely susceptible to getting misplaced entirely by the accountant gurus at the Pentagon. Part of the reason, though it’s the last thing they’d tell us, is probably that the public, the media, and the military showed very little interest in the thing, and many adamantly opposed it, including many of us who publicly promised to turn out everyone we could to block it, denounce it, and instead celebrate Armistice Day. We also committed to going ahead with that celebration, and all the more so, if the parade was cancelled. But when it was cancelled, a number of groups lost all their enthusiasm for moving forward. That I consider a shame and a strategic error. But some scaled back events are planned for DC, and some good models are available for promoting Armistice Day everywhere on earth. More on that shortly.

Let’s not overlook the point, though, that public sentiment contributed to cancelling the Trumparade. If Trump launches a big new war it will be in part because he believes the public will cheer for it. This is why it is so critical that we make clear right now that we will condemn it — and worse, we won’t watch it. It will get bad ratings. If we can communicate that to Donald Trump we may have peace evermore.

I want to get back to the parade that was even dumber. Recall that Woodrow Wilson had been reelected on the slogan “he kept us out of war,” although he’d been trying for a long time to get the U.S. into the war. He’d hoped to get the British and the French to agree to his terms for a postwar world with a peace without victor, and his 14 points drafted by Walter Lippmann and others and including a League of Nations meant to preserve peace, plus disarmament and free trade and an end to colonialism. Despite their refusal, Wilson went ahead and pushed the U.S. into the war using all sorts of lies about sunken U.S. ships and a brutal propaganda campaign that let virtually everyone know what to think and locked up those who didn’t think correctly.

Recall that the Great War was the worst, most concentrated violence that white people had ever imposed on themselves, and that they were not used to it. On top of the dramatic death toll, the United States shipped soldiers and sailors with the flu off to the trenches of Europe from which the deadly disease spread around the world, killing perhaps 2 or 3 times the number of people killed directly in the war. Ignorance about the flu was encouraged by policies that forbid newspapers to report anything less than cheerful during a war. Spain didn’t have those restrictions. So news of the epidemic was first reported in Spain, and people began calling the disease the Spanish Flu.

Now, the U.S. government wanted to hold a parade in Philadelphia with more weapons than even Trump might have demanded plus crowds of flu-infected veterans just returned from the trenches. Numerous health experts pointed out that this was about as smart as machine gunning and poison gassing millions of young men in the name of ending war — or as a popular poster at more recent protests has put it: fornicating for virginity. But Philly’s health director Wilmer Krusen had about as much respect for the general public as a Philadelphia Eagles fan has for an opposing team. Krusen announced that the flu was fake news. He proposed that people just stop coughing, spitting, and sneezing. Seriously. The Christian Scientists or the pray the gay away people were in charge. Stop sneezing. That will fix everything.

One purpose of the parade was to sell bonds to pay for the war, and each city wanted to sell the most, including Philadelphia. Instead, what Philadelphia grabbed the record for was spreading the most influenza. A massive outbreak was predicted and occurred.

One man who may have come down with the flu as a result of the epidemic that was hugely increased by the parade was Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson travelled to Versailles to negotiate the peaceful paradise he had promised the world, he found, as expected, that the British and the French wanted no part in it. Instead they wanted to punish the Germans as viciously as possible. One reason that Wilson put up hardly any fight for what he had sworn he would fight for was almost certainly the amount of time he spent sick in bed in France. And one reason he was sick in bed may very well have been the dumbest parade in history — a parade that helped kill on the scale of the war and perhaps a much larger scale.

Smart observers predicted World War II the moment they saw the nasty terms of the peace agreement that Wilson had seen roll over his sick bed. That second fit of collective lunacy would, as I’ve said, kill more than the first one and its flu combined. And the legacy of World War II would be the endless ongoing slaughter of millions of civilians in a normalized permawar that has ended all peace. And that has included permanent WWII propaganda rendering it impossible to question WWII and therefore much more convenient never to think about WWI. So, the moral of the story is: plan your parades carefully.

Actually, there are some other morals of the story. If you read Sigmund Freud’s biography of Woodrow Wilson, he cites the fact that following the disaster at Versailles, Wilson could blatantly contradict himself in a matter of days as evidence that Wilson had lost his mind. Of course we have now progressed so far beyond Freudian mythology as to recognize that a U.S. president really ought to blatantly contradict himself in a matter of minutes.

A more serious moral of the story is one that Freud and most everyone else ignores, namely that — as usual — there were some people who got things right very early on and were not listened to: the peace activists. We shouldn’t excuse World War I on the grounds that nobody knew. It’s not as if wars have to be fought in order to learn each time that war is hell. It’s not as if each new type of weaponry suddenly makes war evil. It’s not as if war wasn’t already the worst thing ever created. It’s not as if people didn’t say so, didn’t resist, didn’t propose alternatives, didn’t go to prison for their convictions.

In 1915, Jane Addams met with President Wilson and urged him to offer mediation to Europe. Wilson praised the peace terms drafted by a conference of women for peace held in the Hague. He received 10,000 telegrams from women asking him to act. Some historians believe that had he acted in 1915 or early in 1916 he might very well have helped bring the Great War to an end under circumstances that would have furthered a far more durable peace than the one made eventually at Versailles. Wilson did act on the advice of Addams, and of his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, but not until it was too late. By the time he acted, the Germans did not trust a mediator who had been aiding the British war effort. Wilson was left to campaign for reelection on a platform of peace and then quickly propagandize and plunge the United States into Europe’s war. And the number of progressives Wilson brought, at least briefly, to the side of loving war makes Barack Obama look like an amateur.

Not only were peace activists right about why and how to try to end World War I, but some of them immediately predicted World War II after Versailles. Some of them marched and protested against the build up to a war with Japan for many years leading up to Pearl Harbor, which was as much a surprise as Lindsey Graham voting for Brett Kavanaugh. And some of them made every effort to get Jews and other targeted people out of Germany for years, with the only government interested in helping them being that of Adolf Hitler.

World War II was not humanitarian and was not even marketed as such until after it was over. The United States led global conferences at which the decision was made not to accept Jewish refugees, and for explicitly racist reasons, and despite Hitler’s claim that he would send them anywhere on luxury cruise ships. There was no poster asking you to help Uncle Sam save the Jews. A ship of Jewish refugees from Germany was chased away from Miami by the Coast Guard. The U.S. and other nations refused to accept Jewish refugees, and the majority of the U.S. public supported that position. Peace groups that questioned Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his foreign secretary about shipping Jews out of Germany to save them were told that, while Hitler might very well agree to the plan, it would be too much trouble and require too many ships. The U.S. engaged in no diplomatic or military effort to save the victims in the Nazi concentration camps. Anne Frank was denied a U.S. visa. Although this point has nothing to do with a serious historian’s case for WWII as a Just War, it is so central to U.S. mythology that I’ll quote here a key passage from Nicholson Baker:

“Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary, who’d been tasked by Churchill with handling queries about refugees, dealt coldly with one of many important delegations, saying that any diplomatic effort to obtain the release of the Jews from Hitler was ‘fantastically impossible.’ On a trip to the United States, Eden candidly told Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, that the real difficulty with asking Hitler for the Jews was that ‘Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.’ Churchill agreed. ‘Even were we to obtain permission to withdraw all the Jews,’ he wrote in reply to one pleading letter, ‘transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.’ Not enough shipping and transport? Two years earlier, the British had evacuated nearly 340,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk in just nine days. The U.S. Air Force had many thousands of new planes. During even a brief armistice, the Allies could have airlifted and transported refugees in very large numbers out of the German sphere.”

One reason peace advocates have not been and still are not listened to is the system of propaganda first created for World War I. The propaganda machinery invented by President Woodrow Wilson and his Committee on Public Information had drawn Americans into the war with exaggerated and fictional tales of German atrocities in Belgium, posters depicting Jesus Christ in khaki sighting down a gun barrel, and promises of selfless devotion to making the world safe for democracy. The extent of the casualties was hidden from the public as much as possible during the course of the war, but by the time it was over many had learned something of war’s reality. And many had come to resent the manipulation of noble emotions that had pulled an independent nation into overseas barbarity.

However, the propaganda that motivated the fighting was not immediately erased from people’s minds. A war to end wars and make the world safe for democracy cannot end without some lingering demand for peace and justice, or at least for something more valuable than the flu and prohibition. Even those rejecting the idea that the war could in any way help advance the cause of peace aligned with all those wanting to avoid all future wars — a group that probably encompassed most of the U.S. population. As Wilson had talked up peace as the official reason for going to war, countless souls had taken him extremely seriously. “It is no exaggeration to say that where there had been relatively few peace schemes before the World War,” writes Robert Ferrell, “there now were hundreds and even thousands” in Europe and the United States. The decade following the war was a decade of searching for peace: “Peace echoed through so many sermons, speeches, and state papers that it drove itself into the consciousness of everyone. Never in world history was peace so great a desideratum, so much talked about, looked toward, and planned for, as in the decade after the 1918 Armistice.”

That remains true today. The peace movement of the 1960s was huge. That of the 1920s was all-encompassing.

Congress passed an Armistice Day resolution calling for “exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding … inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.” Later, Congress added that November 11th was to be “a day dedicated to the cause of world peace.”

That is the tradition we need to restore. It lasted in the United States up through the 1950s and even longer in some other countries under the name Remembrance Day. It was only after the United States had nuked Japan, destroyed Korea, begun a Cold War, created the CIA, and established a permanent military industrial complex with major permanent bases around the globe, that the U.S. government renamed Armistice Day as Veterans Day on June 1, 1954.

Veterans Day is no longer, for most people, a day to cheer the ending of war or even to aspire to its abolition. Veterans Day is not even a day on which to mourn or to question why suicide is the top killer of U.S. troops or why so many veterans have no houses.

In the years following World War I, war was something to be lamented, exactly as if it were not desirable. World War I had cost, as one author calculated it at the time, enough money to have given a $2,500 home with $1,000 worth of furniture and five acres of land to every family in Russia, most of the European nations, Canada, the United States, and Australia, plus enough to give every city of over 20,000 a $2 million library, a $3 million hospital, a $20 million college, and still enough left over to buy every piece of property in Germany and Belgium. And it was all legal. Incredibly stupid, but totally legal. Particular atrocities violated laws, but war was not criminal. It never had been, but it soon would be.

The Outlawry Movement of the 1920s—the movement to outlaw war—sought to replace war with arbitration, by first banning war and then developing a code of international law and a court with the authority to settle disputes. The first step was taken in 1928 with the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which banned all war. Today 81 nations are party to that treaty, including the United States, and many of them comply with it. I’d like to see additional nations, poorer nations that were left out of the treaty, join it (which they can do simply by stating that intention to the U.S. State Department) and then urge the greatest purveyors of violence in the world to comply.

I wrote a book about the movement that created that treaty, not just because we need to continue its work, but also because we can learn from its methods. Here was a movement that united people across the political spectrum, those for and against alcohol, those for and against the League of Nations, with a proposal to criminalize war. It was an uncomfortably large coalition. There were negotiations and peace pacts between rival factions of the peace movement. There was a moral case made that expected the best of people. War wasn’t opposed merely on economic grounds or because it might kill people from one’s own country. It was opposed as mass murder, as no less barbaric than duelling as a means of settling individuals’ disputes. Here was a movement with a long-term vision based on educating and organizing. There was an endless hurricane of lobbying, but no endorsing of politicians, no aligning of a movement behind a party. On the contrary, all four — yes, four — major parties were compelled to line up behind the movement. Instead of Clint Eastwood talking to a chair or Donald Trump’s 4th-grade vocabulary, the Republican National Convention of 1924 saw President Coolidge promising to outlaw war if reelected.

And on August 27, 1928, in Paris, France, that scene happened that made it into a 1950s folk song as a mighty room filled with men, and the papers they were signing said they’d never fight again. And it was men, women were outside protesting. And it was a pact among wealthy nations that nonetheless would continue making war on and colonizing the poor. But it was a pact for peace that ended wars and ended the acceptance of territorial gains made through wars, except in Palestine, the Sahara, Diego Garcia, and other exceptions. It was a treaty that still required a body of law and an international court that we still do not have. But it was a treaty that in 90 years those wealthy nations would, in relation to each other, violate only once. Following World War II, the Kellogg-Briand Pact was used to prosecute victor’s justice. And the big armed nations never went to war with each other again, yet. And so, the pact is generally considered to have failed.

What has failed is the idea of the United States as a law abiding citizen. The U.S. National Security Advisory, who poses a threat to actual security, not only holds the United States to be above the law, but publicly threatens any nation that supports the rule of law, even while violating the U.N. Charter by threatening war on others under the guise of law enforcement. And while most people in the United States are not eager for more wars, and there would be no rebellion if we were given peace, there is broad consensus across the political spectrum in the United States that the United States is special, so special as to merit its own standards and privileges properly denied to ever other nation.

I might add here that there is bad as well as good in people shunning Saudi Arabia over the murder of one U.S. corporate journalist but not over the murder of thousands of non-Americans. There’s also something very disturbing in the accepted notion that one should sell bombs only to governments that do not abuse human rights, meaning kill anyone without bombs. There is also something both evil and incompetent in Trump arguing that you sell them weapons anyway to create jobs, since military spending is in fact a drain on jobs and the reverse arms race that the United States could easily lead could be made to economically benefit everyone.

In my latest book, Curing Exceptionalism, I look at how the United States compares with other countries, how people think about that, what harm this thinking does, and how to think differently. In the first of those four sections, I try to find some measure by which the United States actually is the greatest, number one, the only indispensible nation, and I fail.

I tried freedom, but every ranking by every institute or academy, abroad, within the United States, privately funded, funded by the CIA, etc., failed to rank the United States at the top, whether for rightwing capitalist freedom to exploit, leftwing freedom to lead a fulfilling life, freedom in civil liberties, freedom to change one’s economic position, freedom by any definition under the sun. The United States where “at least I know I’m free” in the words of a country song contrasts with other countries where at least I know I’m freer.

So I looked harder. I looked at education at every level, and found the United States ranked first only in student debt. I looked at wealth and found the United States ranked first only in inequality of wealth distribution among wealthy nations. In fact, the United States ranks at the bottom of wealthy nations in a very long list of measures of quality of life. You live longer, healthier, and happier elsewhere. The United States ranks first among all nations in various measures one shouldn’t be proud of: incarceration, various sorts of environmental destruction, and most measures of militarism, as well as some dubious categories, such as — don’t sue me — lawyers per capita. And it ranks first in a number of items that I imagine those who shout “We’re Number 1!” to quiet down anybody working to improve things do not have in mind: most television viewing, most paved asphalt, at or near the top in most obesity, most wasted food, cosmetic surgery, pornography, consumption of cheese, etc.

In a rational world, nations that had found the best policies on healthcare, gun violence, education, environmental protection, peace, prosperity, and happiness would be most promoted as models worthy of consideration. In this world, the prevalence of the English language, the dominance of Hollywood, and other factors do in fact put the United States in the lead in one thing: in the promotion of all of its mediocre to disastrous policies.

What we need is not shame in place of pride, or some new version of patriotism. What we need is to stop identifying ourselves so much with a national government and a military. We need to identify more with our actual smaller communities, and with the wider human and natural community of this little planet. We need a new Armistice Day conceived of by people who view the world and each other in those terms.

At the website WorldBEYONDWar.org/ArmisticeDay you’ll find a list of events around the world and the opportunity to add an event not yet listed. You’ll also find resources that include speakers, videos, activities, articles, information, posters and flyers to help with your event. One activity promoted by Veterans For Peace is the ringing of bells at that moment of 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month. Groups can contact us at World BEYOND War for help planning any activities. But I think they might also want to contact the Santa Cruz peace community as you have really taken the lead in restoring this peace holiday by marking it and the date one month before it and two months before it, etc. It’s wonderful what you’ve done. Wonderful also is the Collateral Damage monument in Santa Cruz — a model for a culture of peace.

I also want to plant another future activity idea in your heads that I just learned about this week. It seems that next April 4th is not just 51 years since the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 52 years since his best known speech against war, but it’s also the 70th birthday of that wonderfully benevolent institution called NATO. So, there’s going to be a big NATO Summit in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 2019, and we at World BEYOND War believe there should be a peace summit there too. We’re starting to build a coalition, to plan speaking events and more festival-like big-art public demonstration events at that time and the previous weekend.

Now, I know that Trump said NATO should be abolished, just before he backed continuing and expanding NATO and badgered NATO members to put more money into NATO and weaponry. So, therefore, NATO is anti-Trump. And therefore NATO is good and noble. And so I have no business saying No to NATO / Yes to Peace. On the other hand, NATO has pushed the weaponry and the hostility and the massive so-called war games right up to the border of Russia. NATO has waged aggressive wars far from the North Atlantic. NATO has added Colombia, abandoning all pretense of serving some purpose in the North Atlantic. NATO is used to free the U.S. Congress from the responsibility and the right to oversee the atrocities of U.S. wars. NATO is used as cover by NATO member governments to join U.S. wars under the pretense that they are somehow more legal or acceptable. NATO is used as cover to illegally and recklessly share nuclear weapons with supposedly non-nuclear nations. NATO is used, just as the alliances that created World War I, to assign nations the responsibility to go to war if other nations go to war, and therefore to be prepared for war. NATO should be buried in Arlington Cemetery and the rest of us put out of our misery. The turn out against NATO in Chicago five years before this coming summit was encouraging. I plan to be out in the streets again this time to say No to NATO, Yes to peace, Yes to prosperity, Yes to a sustainable environment, Yes to civil liberties, Yes to education, Yes to a culture of nonviolence and kindness and decency, Yes to remembering April 4th as a day associated with the work for peace of Martin Luther King Jr. I hope you’ll join us in the swamp in the springtime.

Thank you for everything you’re doing for peace! Let’s do more!

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