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Kurt Vonnegut’s Case for Armistice Day: A Transnational Perspective On Veterans Holidays

Joseph R. Miller, Ph.D. Student, University of Maine

The nearly completed ceramic poppy art installation at the Tower of London at sunrise on November 11th. NPR

The nearly completed ceramic poppy art installation at the Tower of London at sunrise on November 11th. NPR

As a scholar of Canada and the United States, I am often drawn to the differences between the two countries. I have on several occasions received free cups of coffee in Canada because I wear a beat up tactical American flag hat, often worn by Iraq and Afghan war vets, whenever I drive for long distances. Despite my service solely in Iraq which was not a conflict that Canadians fought in (save the Canadians serving as commonwealth soldiers in the Royal Marines or Special Air Service), I have received the same thanks for my service from Canadian colleagues and the people I meet in day-to-day interactions during research trips in Canada. Canadians have treated me like one of their own veterans when they find discover my service in Iraq. Canada’s commemoration of Armistice Day and Remembrance Day preserves a traditions once shared by US Veterans, and there is a movement of US veterans that want to celebrate moment when the First World War ended.

Kurt Vonnegut is known for questioning the structure of the novel by placing himself into his fictional stories. In his introduction to Breakfast of Champions he bemoaned the ending of the American celebration of Armistice Day.

            I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in    the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old    men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way    or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.[1]

Armistice day was sacred because it celebrated the close of a war that was supposed to end all others. While Armistice Day celebrates a distinct moment when a senseless war ended, his words have inspired a movement of US veterans who wish to reestablish the Armistice Day tradition.[2]

As a veteran of the Second World War, a specific witness to the aftermath at Dresden, Vonnegut was never happy with the way that Veterans Day celebrates veterans rather the secessions of violence in World War One. Great Britain and Canada still wear the poppies of Flanders field, and Canadians from Rob Ford to symbol of post war trauma and growth Roméo Dalliare all wear the poppy to symbolize the moment when the world stopped slaughtering soldiers in trench warfare.[3] Remembrance or Armistice Day fuses what America now celebrates as Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Americans already celebrated Decoration Day following the high death rates of the Civil War and chose to transition Armistice Day to a ceremonial event to support living veterans.[4] Yet, on this Veterans Day it is important to remember what our country gave up when it split from Canada and the British Commonwealth and celebrated Veterans Day. Sadly, the First World War did not end all wars, but Armistice Day celebrates a moment when the world imagined the end of all conflicts. One minute of silently remembering that moment on November 11th 1918 is not just a commemoration of the dead, but also a reminder of how moments of peace can help veterans transcend the lasting memory of violence. It is no wonder why Vonnegut, whose experience of burying civilians killed in the Dresden raid inspired some of the English language’s most poignant anti-war fiction, believed Armistice Day to be sacrosanct.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Breakfast of Champions (New York: Dial Press, 2011), 6.

[2] Veterans for Peace are the loudest proponents of Vonnegut’s praise of Armistice Day, yet the transnational comparison offers an important critique. Countries that celebrate Armistice Day fought in World War II, and have fought along side the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is why highlighting Armistice Day as a moment when the world believed in peace is perhaps a better ceremony to honor veterans than the unrealizable ideal of ending all war. Veterans for Peace, http://www.veteransforpeace.org/ (accessed 11 November, 2014)

[3] It would be valuable for anyone to learn a more about Roméo Dalliare. In short, he is the principle reason why there is less stigma about Posttraumatic Stress disorder in the Canadian Military (though they use the term Occupational Stress Injury,) because of his openness about suffering from mental illness. He suffered as a result of his command of multi national forces in Rwanda because he did not have the forces necessary to halt genocide. Lieutenant-General the honorable Roméo A. Dalliare, O.C., C.M.M., G.O.C, M.S.C., C.D., (RETIRED), http://www.romeodallaire.com/ (Accessed 11 November, 2014).

[4]Yale Scholar David Blight has an excellent blog post describing Decoration day, and the older decoration of graves with flowers rather then the newer decorations of American flags has much more in common with Remembrance and Armistice Day, so the adoption of post War World War II veterans and memorial Commemoration have changed over time. David W. Blight “The First Decoration Day” http://www.davidwblight.com/memorial.htm (accessed, 11 November 2014), For a basic history of the WWII era shift, see Noah Rayman. “How Veterans Day Came to Be,” Time http://time.com/3572766/veterans-day-history/ (accessed 11 November, 2014)

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