Tuesday, November 11, 2008

11:00, 11.11.1918: Armistice/Veterans Day

Veterans Day (contrary to popular opinion, not expressed as either a singular or a plural possessive) is one of those American holidays that reflects our shifting appreciation for historical time and ritual: It commemorates the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, when the Armistice brought an end to the slaughter of the Great War. First celebrated as a US holiday on 12 November 1919, it became the familiar Armistice Day, celebrated on the 11th in 1926, and was transformed into Veterans Day in the aftermath of World War II, in 1954.

Like many other federal holidays, Veterans Day succumbed to the problematic "Monday Holiday Law" of 1968, which attempted to shift celebrations from their historic dates to neighboring Mondays, thus providing workers with a three-day weekend.  In the case of Veterans Day, the shift was notably bizarre, for as of 1971, when the new legislation went into effect, the celebration was relocated to the fourth Monday of October.  It would have made about as much sense to shift Independence Day to June, but the change was particularly ill-conceived, given the numerological significance of the original.  Forty-eight states accepted the new date, but in the course of the next four years, 25 peeled away, and eventually, a total of 46 celebrated the old date.  Federal legislation of 1978 finally and irrevocably returned the holiday to 11-11. (No doubt, the Vietnam experience had something to do with it.)

To mourn what we have lost in the realm of ritual as well as human life is not to cling to tradition, but to understand how it should be used.  When I was in elementary school (quite a while back, but not all that long ago), we still stood and observed a moment of silence at 11:11 on November 11.  There would be no point to that now, for the Great War was not the "war to end all wars" and is not a particular point of reference for the current generation.  Similarly, when I was a child or even a young adult, veterans' organizations still sold paper poppies, with their reference to the flowers of "Flanders Fields" in the Great War. At some point in recent decades, these emblems became purple forget-me-nots instead, which may have been a more meaningful message in more ways than one in the post-Vietnam era.  However, the shift of the date is a more serious matter.  

Even leaving aside the compelling and beautiful significance of the triple "eleven," a Monday holiday in effect defeats the purpose of this commemoration in particular.  The whole point of the holiday, like most ancient and traditional holidays, is to mark a break from ordinary times and routines: one thinks of the well-known pre-industrial rhythms of "feast and fast" versus our modern, smoothed-out time, made even flatter by the availability of almost every good and service "24-7." We are unwilling to give up our convenience and the routine of being bound by no routine.  

Anyone who wants to appreciate how the ritual disruption of routine can function as a call to civic memory need only consider the simple commemoration of Yom ha-Shoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day (there is a similar practice on th day on which the war dead are mourned), when a morning siren brings all vehicular and pedestrian traffic to a stop for a moment of silence:

Writing about November 11 in the New York Times, Alexander Watson reminds us of the varied cultural assumptions and experiences behind our practices of commemoration:
Cambridge, England

TODAY is the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, and it will be commemorated very differently on each side of the Atlantic and across the borders of Europe. It’s a reminder that not all “victors” experience wars in the same way, and that their citizens can have almost as much difficulty as those of the vanquished states in coping with the collective trauma of conflict.

For Americans, Veterans Day celebrates the survivors of all the nation’s 20th and 21st century wars. In France and Britain, by contrast, the mood is altogether more somber. In these countries, it is the dead who, since 1919, have been the focus of the ceremonies.

Why this difference?
(read the full article: Alexander Watson, "The Holiday to End All Wars," New York Times, 10 Nov. 2008)

Commemorations of the 90th anniversary of the end of the war in the UK, France, and Belgium:

Video of commemorations in the UK, France, and Belgium

No comments: