November 12, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut: forget Veterans Day.


Originally, this Day was a day to honor our universal wish for peace, and to remember the horrors of war. Now, this day is about sales and honoring war, and warriors. Let us remember that true warriors hate war, and love peace, and let us honor warriors by bowing our heads in silence as we remember that all beings on this Earth are one family. ~ ed.

Kurt Vonnegut put it better:

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. — Breakfast of Champions


And, from Mother Night:

“Oh, it’s just so damn cheap, so damn typical.” I said, “This used to be a day in honor of the dead of World War One, but the living couldn’t keep their grubby hands off of it, wanted the glory of the dead for themselves. So typical, so typical. Any time anything of real dignity appears in this country, it’s torn to shreds and thrown to the mob.”


Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was part of a much larger conversation. “You were just BABIES then!” She said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We HAD been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.

“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.”

This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.

“I — I don’t know,” I said.

“Well I know. You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars.

~ Kurt Vonnegut, veteran war baby, from Ch. 1 of The Children’s Crusade, aka Slaughterhouse Five


Cat’s Cradle is actually Vonnegut’s best when it comes to remembering wars and those who fought in them:

“I am about to do a very un-ambassadorial thing … I am about to tell you what I really feel. … We are gathered here, friends … to honor [the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy], children dead, all dead, all murdered in war. It is customary on days like this to call such lost children men. I am unable to call them men for this simple reason: that in the same war in which [the Martyrs] died, my own son died. My soul insists that I mourn not a man but a child.

I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all same.

And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.

Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns. … [I]f today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war … is today a day for a thrilling show? The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.”

Bonus, on the above:

[–]DrMikeTyson on Reddit:

With all respect, I think most comments here are missing the point, at least as far as the point that I take when I read it. He isn’t talking about people wanting to turn 11.11 into something jingoistic, or that we aren’t properly honouring anyone’s sacrifice any more. I suspect that the first thing might have been something he would have been worried about, and that he wouldn’t really care about the second, but that isn’t the point of this quote.

Vonnegut is pointing out that we have lost the transcendent understanding of the moment that we are commemorating, going as far as to call it sacred. It isn’t the fact that the war was “meaningless”, that we had made a sacrifice too great, or that Vonnegut was a pacifistic (although he was sympathetic to the idea).

It was that we stopped. We stopped all at once. We stopped the carnage, stopped the explosion, stopped the noise. What Vonnegut wants us to consider is how it must have felt that day. If the war was a machine of terrible power, imagine the raw power that one must have felt when it was switched off. The negative force of all of that which had been destroying our world and our men for the past 4 years. The power of vacuum.

This is why a moment of silence is still so powerful. After the fire of guns the sound of silence is holy.

What Vonnegut thinks we have lost in our personal and civic remembrance is that at one specific moment in time we experienced a real miracle, together. Only it wasn’t God that interceded, we did. And maybe, one day, the betterangles angels of our nature will allow us to hear this divine voice again.

Reply to atenea cancel

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atenea Nov 11, 2014 2:21pm

The US economy would be even worse without its military-industrial complex. A series of administrations thirsty for blood, gun trafficking and all the evils that come with it. Such a pity. I feel sorry for the American people.

elephantjournal Nov 11, 2013 10:29pm

On Facebook, I was asked by a friend to clarify my view on Veteran's Day:

This is about a culture that worships war, or peace. Warriors more than any hate war and long for peace—you who have served see the cost of war firsthand in the loss of time with family, in the loss of lives of friends, sisters and brothers. But it's a big difference: Armistice Day vs the modern Veteran's Day, in the US.

Via this post on Reddit, some relephant comments:

"In the US we call it Veterans Day and generally speaking, it's celebrated as a day to give thanks and praise service men and women. It's also a typical American holiday in which there are lots of sales. However, it's not seen as a day of "peace" in that we remember the end of WWI. It's more of a display of how important the military is without any of the somber reverence of the sacrifices that people make during war time. Memorial Day is much more somber and more of a remembrance event (at least how I remember it. I don't know if that's different for other people in the US). Also, there are sales then too.

There is a poignancy to WWI. It's the idea of the 19th century and its idea of itself as an age of progress being shattered by the guns of August, and the idea, at the war's end, that the civilized world would never do something like that again.

I think we ought to celebrate Armistice Day. We ought to observe it as a day of peace and a day to honor the dead of that war, and we ought to put aside two minutes of silence to reflect on how fragile is civilization, and how we continue to fall short in our responsibility to perpetuate it.

I agree 110% with that. If we had a day to reflect meaningfully on war, and to really contemplate on some of the horrors of war, maybe we could exorcise some of those demons we have from past conflicts and to demystify the glory and appeal of war.

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