To the Editor:
My earliest memory of Remembrance Day, formerly known as Armistice Day in the United States and now as Veteran’s Day, is of standing beside my elementary school desk at 11 a.m. on the eleventh of November. I was in the second grade, so it would have been on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 1952. We probably did it when I was in first grade and kindergarten, but I don’t remember that as vividly as I remember the ceremony in second grade. The teacher announced that it was Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War, and we stood in silence and then went about our business. I didn’t know anything about the First World War other than that my brother and I played soldier wearing my grandfather’s helmet from his days in training to go to the European front. He never went because the war ended before he shipped out thanks to the armistice that we were marking, but his helmet survived as a family plaything.
When I got home after that first memory of the observance, I told my mother what we had done. She told me that it was marked worldwide on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I can remember liking the sound of that phrase and the repetitive harmony of the idea. But the First World War was still a very distant concept. Through hearing conversations among family and friends, I had some sense of the difficulties, separations and sacrifices associated with the recently concluded Second World War, and I saw John Cameron Swayze report on the Korean War every night on the evening news.
As I aged, learned history and experienced war firsthand in Vietnam, I have understood much more of the human costs and horror of the enterprise. For that reason alone, Remembrance Day (or whatever you choose to call it) has a profound significance for me. And the history of the First World War evokes that emotion particularly strongly. What a useless conflict with huge loss of life and consequent sorrow in families and communities left behind! Due to the length of time that the British Empire was involved as compared to us, their losses were proportionally much greater. One can see the manifestation of this in countless small Canadian towns with cenotaphs containing long lists of names of those killed. I think particularly of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, just across the Gulf of Maine from our home in Southwest Harbor. One sees the same thing all across Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and one then reflects on the huge holes left behind in these small communities. And that reflection contains no sense of a positive result of those sacrifices. When my mother told me about Armistice Day, she told me that it was billed as “the war to end war.” History has taught us of the failure of that goal.
This was not the only failure associated with this venture. The armistice led to a punitive settlement imposed by the victors on the defeated that could never be accommodated economically. This led directly to the rise of the Third Reich and the repeated horrors of the Second World War. Further failure resulted from the mindless partition of the Middle East among the European victors, repercussions of which haunt us today.
We have often visited friends who live in England in a small village in Oxfordshire. Their house faces one of those cenotaphs I mentioned earlier. While we have never been there for Remembrance Day observations, they have described the local ceremony. So, on that day, I allow my imagination to transport me there, and it invariably provokes in me the train of thought that I have just summarized. If we have any hope of avoiding future wars, it is vital that we remember.