Armistice Day - 2012    

(published 12 Nov. 2012, Circleville Herald)

by Brad Cotton

November 8th the Logan Elm High School Band performed by invitation for the third time at the Bands of America national competition in Indianapolis.  My wife and I held hands watching son Travis as Field Commander and grandson trombonist Tayler perform.

I again visited the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library but was unable to attend the day long seminar “Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day: Healing through the Humanities.”  Armistice Day initially commemorated the moment at 11:00 in the morning on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when the largest mechanized mass slaughter of human beings we had ever brought upon our sons suddenly ceased. The names of the towns, fields and rivers where so many died or vanished in the mud or were vaporized by high explosive shells; Tannenberg, the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele are icons of waste and futility. July 1st 1916 on the Somme 20,000 of the best of Britain’s youth were killed in 6 hours.

The shell shock of WW I annihilated the smug, can-do self-confidence of the pre-war years. Humanity had arrogantly thought that the machines and science that built the Eiffel Tower (and the “Titanic”) meant unstoppable endless advancement and prosperity. To millions of the men buried alive in the trenches, “machine” was only the first word of “machine gun.”  Humanity looked into the Nietzschean abyss and saw barbed wire, poison gas, and the awful angst of “God is Dead, we have killed Him. What can we do now?”  Dada said art is dead. T.S. Eliot wrote “The Wasteland”.

Individual artists and writers of “The Lost Generation,” as modern Jacobs, wrestled with God and the Great War. The echoes of Hemingway’s near death on the Italian front are heard by any ear held to his works. Poet Lt. Wilfred Owen, killed in the last week of the war, asked that we not tell to innocent youths the old lie, that it is grand and glorious to die for your country. Poet and British officer Siegfried Sassoon begged that we “never forget”.  Painter / machine gunner Otto Dix painted gruesome expressionist trench scenes, recognizing that the Great War had taken over his soul. German soldier and novelist Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front despairs that “Had we returned in 1916, out of the suffering and the strength of our experiences, we might have unleashed a storm. Now, if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt-out, rootless and without hope.”

Kurt Vonnegut as a POW survived the joint US/British terror bombing of Dresden February 1945.  Slaughterhouse Five, his finest work about the deaths of perhaps a 100,000 civilians incinerated in the ensuing firestorm was released at the height of the Vietnam War. Like Remarque, Owen, Sassoon, Dix, Hemingway, indeed like so many veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vonnegut’s art reflects nightmares. The author compared his writing of “Slaughterhouse” to Lot’s wife, looking back on scenes of devastation and wrath and turned to a pillar of salt because he dared to look and question.

Vonnegut interviewed US veterans from the trenches at 11:00 a.m. 11 November 1918 when the guns fired one last round, then killed no more: “I have talked to old men who were on the battlefield during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God.”   Vonnegut was actively against the Vietnam War and, as member of Veterans for Peace, said compassionately of our troops being thrown away in Iraq,  “They are being treated like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.”

Until 1954, when Armistice Day became Veteran’s Day, the peoples of all nations stood silently together every 11 November at 11:00 a.m.  Let us anew listen to God in the silence saying stop!  Stop! STOPPP!!  We should have listened before invading Iraq. We should have listened before putting down the Philippine 1899 Insurrection or protecting the fictional, US-manufactured state of South Vietnam.  Iraq, the Philippines, Vietnam are three of the most shameful military adventures in our history.

Millions of veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan walk injured among us.  We owe them absolutely everything they may need. There have been coldly deliberate cost-saving instructions given to military and VA psychiatrists to avoid the expensive diagnoses of PTSD. This is unconscionable. Our veterans were not given a choice about when and where to serve. Our veterans did not crash Wall Street—irresponsible and unregulated bankers did that. There should be no talk of deficit cutting or budgets in regards to the care of our veterans, ever. Furthermore, let’s honor the original Armistice Day and listen to God before we indulge in the self-satisfying and blood stirring excitement of the next war.