Veteran's Day was originally created as Armistice Day, to be held in commemoration of the end of The Great War and to promote the cause of world peace.
But war did not end, and in 1954 Armistice Day officially became Veteran's Day, and became dedicated to honoring those who sacrificed for the cause of peace, rather than being dedicated to the cause of peace itself.
World War One ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, so Veterans Day is always on the 11th day of the 11th month.
Could World War One have ended a day sooner, or maybe an hour sooner? It would be another half century, and another war, before a young veteran, John Kerry, pondered the question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
My father, Howard S. Hoffman, became a Quaker in his mid 30s and is now buried in a small Quaker cemetery. Howard was a peaceful man: A scientist, a college professor, a musician, a painter, an author, and most of all (from my perspective) a loving father. My step-mom, also a former college professor, is a Quaker pacifist. Despite her years, she has been attending the Occupy Philadelphia rallies. She protests war, nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, and the destruction of Social Security, which her father, Nelson Cruikshank, helped establish in the 1950s and '60s.
My father was not born to a peaceful time. He fought and killed with the best of them: As an American soldier during World War Two.
His first battle was Cassino, Italy, 1943, where a new technique was used on the whole town -- civilians, German liaison officers, Italian soldiers, cows, goats and chickens alike: Fire the big guns first, they are farthest away. Fire the medium-range guns second, as the big gun's projectiles pass overhead. Then fire the close-in weapons, the mortars (the ones my father manned) as the long- and medium-range shells passed together over the mortar-men, a few hundred yards behind the front line. Then, all at once, a few seconds later...
Shock and Awe had been invented.
Howard fought the Axis forces throughout Europe, pushing the Germans back a yard, a mile, a battle and a town at a time. More than a year after Cassino, he was trudging through icy, snow-covered forests in Belgium during a German offensive that later became known as The Battle of the Bulge.
My father's company came upon a place called Malmedy, where nearly a hundred American prisoners of war had been machine-gunned in cold blood (and cold weather) by German soldiers of the 1st SS Panzer Division, then left to die in the snowy fields. Hitler had ordered no quarter be given, no prisoner be taken, no civilian be pitied in the attack. The ill-conceived offensive was to be swift and brutal. It was.
Within a month, nearly 100,000 soldiers on each side were killed, wounded, or missing -- and thousands more civilians had also perished: Buried under rubble, shot by stray bullets, mistaken for a soldier, or starved or frozen to death in their homes.
My father participated in the relief of Bastogne, the central hub in the Ardennes forest, where seven roads converged, all held by German troops, and where the American commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, sent a famous one-word response to the German commander's demand for surrender:
After The Battle of the Bulge, it is doubtful many Germans thought they could win the war. It was just a matter of time before their inevitable defeat. Did Germany stop fighting? Hardly! Did German soldiers stop committing atrocities? HARDLY! Howard came upon a place where the Germans had burnt a barn full of civilians. They were too difficult to move as swiftly as the Americans were advancing. The Americans had seen the smoke rising for days.
Today the world still has little trouble starting a war, and we seem no better at ending them, either.
If the atomic bomb had been ready while we were still at war with Germany, would we have used it there? Did we use "The Bomb" for demonstration purposes more than anything else when we bombed Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki (as a demonstration to Russia, specifically)?
Was the demonstration effective? What did we demonstrate -- that civilian populations will never be safe from war again? That a sudden escalation of war may come at any time, even when it appears to be the eleventh hour of a war everyone knows must end soon? That global pollution is now an inevitable consequence of war? That we've got The Bomb, now go get one yourselves? They did: Russia, England, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel too it's believed, and perhaps Iran now, too.
Why does it take so much violence to stop violence? Or does it? Is the use of overwhelming force against a weaker enemy justifiable? If so, is the use of overwhelming force operated entirely by remote control equally justifiable? When will war itself become a war crime? Do the actions of a small group of terrorists mostly from one country against another justify destroying the entire civilian infrastructure of a third? Who owns the oil and other riches beneath their feet, or the air we all breath, or the water that runs by, unpolluted?
When a veteran comes back from combat duty with no visible wounds but a head full of mental problems, what should society do? Have a parade? Or have police in riot gear beat him when he protests the greed of the 1%, pepper-spray and tear-gas him, and then arrest him for "assaulting a police officer"? Is this what democracy looks like? Is this the peace our veterans fought for?
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