Reflections | November 8, 2018

Remembering Remembrance Day

Poppies
Photo by Dani G├ęza

Anniversaries prompt us to recall the past and beg us to reflect on the present. This month is the 100th anniversary of the ending of the Great War, the First World War. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, a peace accord was signed in Paris to end World War I. Armistice Day signified the laying down of arms. It’s celebrated as Remembrance Day in France, Canada, and most Commonwealth nations.

Armistice Day is not on your calendar. In the United States, it was changed to Veterans Day in 1954. For peacebuilders, this change was not helpful. The name Armistice Day forces us to go back and recall the events. It highlights negotiations and agreements, diplomacy, conferences and settlements. We wonder who signed it and where. We ask ourselves, “If there could be an armistice, could there not be a prevention of armed conflict in the first place?” If two or three will agree on earth, it will be done for them in heaven. Armistice prompts celebration and relief.

Titling the day Remembrance Day has a different effect. It prompts us to recall the horrors of that war—mustard gas, trench warfare, the Armenian genocide, the sinking of the Lusitania. Most importantly, it brings to mind the rows and rows of crosses in cemeteries across Europe marking deaths of the 17 million people who lost their lives in it.

Remembrance Day gives us pause. We remember that one rash act, the impulsive shooting of Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, could lead to global strife. Like a giant forest dried out by wind and drought, the arrogance and pomposity of the civilized world could be ignited into worldwide conflagration by a single spark.

The Great World War was to be “the war to end all wars.” It didn’t. Besides setting the stage for the Second World War, it directly led into the Bolshevik Revolution and a century of communist totalitarianism played out in Korea and Vietnam and elsewhere. But on this 100th anniversary, we should highlight that sentiment to end war. Voices for peace constrained the US from joining the war—the US entered only in 1917—and then pushed for the establishment of the League of Nations to ensure such a war would never occurr again. A decade later the US would lead the world toward a peace pact.

Just as the barbaric act of settling personal conflicts through duels was made illegal after centuries, war was declared illegal by the Kellogg–Briand Pact in 1928. The General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy calls for nations to resolve conflicts in ways that do not result in interstate duels. Signed by over 60 countries, the Pact is actually having significant impact today as nations build coalitions to enforce economic sanctions to isolate offending states. It’s not perfect, but it’s a significant start.

The 11th of November was not a random choice for the cessation of fighting and armistice. Historically, Nov. 11 was known as the Feast of St. Martin’s Day, the namesake of Martin Luther and the patron saint of France. Born in the 4th century, and a contemporary of Constantine, he is considered an early pacifist of the Roman Empire.

One evening while on duty, the story goes, Martin was riding his horse in the rain when he saw a beggar lying cold along the side of the road. Martin took out his sword, cut his heavy military cape in half, and gave part to the beggar. Later that night he had a dream where he saw Jesus wearing the cape. Jesus said, “See, this is the cloak in which Martin, who is still but a catechumen, has clothed me.” Martin felt compelled to leave military service and get baptized.

Martin is famous for these words, which he spoke to Julian the apostate, “I am a Christian, and therefore cannot fight.” (He is quoted by Brethren scholar Albert C. Wieand in his 1940 booklet The Prince of Peace). Martin would then leave the military, get baptized, and later become the Bishop of Tours. There are many variations on the story, but the depiction of Martin as a Roman soldier cutting his red cape is a common image throughout Europe. The Feast of St. Martin is still celebrated in many countries.

After Martin died, his cape was cut into small pieces, called cappella in Latin, and distributed throughout the region as relics. Churches that received the small capes were called chapelle in French, or chapel. Since there was a limited number of pieces of cloth, small churches, those without musical instruments, did not receive the relic. These were known as a cappellas. Today we use the phrase to mean singing without instrumentation. Just as the terms chapel and a cappella, though ubiquitous, have lost their original meaning, so Nov. 11 has lost its original meaning. On Remembrance Day, we can remember Martin and his struggle of loyalty and service. The cloak of a military officer was issued for service in the Roman cavalry, and Martin had no right to cut the cloak to give to a beggar. A divided loyalty.

The poem “In Flanders Fields,” which will be read around the globe on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, addresses the issue of loyalty. The poem begins with the indelible image of red poppies planted between the rows and rows of white crosses. It finishes with this challenge.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The living are to “take up the quarrel” of those who died in the conflict. A half century before, during the Civil War, President Lincoln had written a similar sentiment at Gettysburg.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion— that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Take up the quarrel. . . . We should pause this Armistice Day and reflect on militarism in America: It means to take up the quarrel, continue the fight, honor the dead—may they not die in vain. Like an endless relay race, one soldier passes the torch to the next and to the next.

In 1967 during the Vietnam War, Muhammed Ali shocked the world and drew intense hatred when he declared himself a conscientious objector and refused induction into the US Army, famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Ali refused to take up the quarrel. A year later, in solidarity with Ali, Olympic medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power silent salute and endorsement of all human rights. Raising a fist during the playing of the national anthem does not sit well with Americans. It evidences a divided loyalty.

During the playing of the national anthem two years ago, football player Colin Kaepernick stood for what he felt was right—or rather knelt down. He refused to stand during the national anthem because of his views on the country’s treatment of racial minorities. Nike has begun an ad campaign based on his actions: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” When interviewed about the situation, Kaepernick said, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

St. Martin’s Day is now called Veterans Day. Veterans Day prompts a different response. Unlike Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, Veterans Day divorces us from history. It pushes us to the present. We honor the veterans around us, thank them for their service, and subtly (or not so subtly) inspire the next generation to join the ranks of the esteemed and take up the quarrel.

As a nation we will not ask too many questions this Veterans Day. We will pat our veterans on the back, applaud, parade them here and there, and maybe even give them a free ride to Arlington Cemetery to see a wreath laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But we will not ask too many questions. We won’t ask questions about health care or suicide rates. We certainly won’t ask about their time of service in Afghanistan or Iraq—what did they see and what did they do? And most importantly, we won’t ask about their quarrels.

Veterans Day honors all who have served in the armed forces, but only them. Upon the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, let us remember the others—those who have fought to end war, the peacebuilders, the foreign diplomats, ambassadors, public servants, Red Cross workers, doctors without borders, and so forth. Let us remember that there’s always an alternative to violence and celebrate those who find peaceful solutions. Like Martin, let us use our swords to cut our cloaks in Christ’s service.

Jay Wittmeyer is executive director of Global Mission and Service for the Church of the Brethren.