Over 16 million humans died in the war that ended this day 100 year ago – on November 11, 1918. This is Armistice Day a hundred years later, and it should not go unremembered. Death like that deserves mourning, and peace from that deserves honor.
But there are right and wrong ways to commemorate this day. This morning I attended a service that did it the wrong way.
There were rifle-twirling cadets. There were USO people handing out American flags (I abstained). There was a National Guard band that played the bouncy, grating, wholly inappropriate marches of the US armed services – and a bagpiper who played the same. There was a state commission chairman going on with whitewashed history of the war and nice politically-correct platitudes about the nice social effects of the war. There were historically-bizarre claims that the dead of the Great War dided for freedom (it does not appear that the Kaiser wanted to enslave the US). There was a wholly unnecessary pledging of allegiance (I also abstained, of course) and a gratuitous singing of “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” that put a fine point on the fact that this commemoration had forgotten that WW1 was a war fought largely by non-Americans.
It was vanity, and it made me angry. All in all we were seeing the same propaganda and militarism that sped the young men of 1914-1918 on to early graves. And it didn’t seem that anyone except me spotted the irony.
There were good moments (the tolling of the bell of peace and the more considerate and very human speech by a former colonel), but largely this memorial felt like a big missed point. If this is what people think is the appropriate way to remember the centennial of a war that scarred the whole earth, I am not so sure we won’t have to go through it again.
The proper way to remember Armistice Day is to remember the humans, living and dead, whom war touched. It is not to rehash the same bloody symbols and teams and group identities that the war dead heard no end of. The proper way is to celebrate peace and freedom – which are human things – not to celebrate the military might which is inherently inhuman.
Fortunately some people are doing good work to make that possible. Here are some ways you can properly remember the humans of Armistice Day around the world:
- View photos the New York Times has just published from Armistice Day celebrations.
- Listen to eyewitness accounts of the war from the men who experienced it in the wonderful BBC podcast series “Voices of the First World War.”
- Listen to Dan Carlin’s intense, visceral historical podcast series on the war from a high-level and a human’s eye view.
- Watch one of the excellent movies made about the Great War. Joyeaux Noel is a wonderful drama of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Testament of Youth is a heartbreaking story of a young woman who watched her generation suffer through war.
- View the tweets and thoughts on Armistice Day from around the world on Twitter.
Weep for the tragedy of the loss of so many men and women who were not so different from you, and who lived not so long ago. Honor peace and justice and freedom – and those who did (in their own small way) show courage in pursuing it. Be grateful that you live in a world far better than any of the survivors of the Great War could have expected. And don’t forget what you will be wasting if you ever decide to follow the politicians down the path to military conflicts like this one.