Bush, so the polls tell us, is seen as a strong leader and a war president, despite his own difficulties in serving his country. It’s still strange to me to see Bush in any context where he could contrast with actual veterans, perhaps even actual heroes: The logical part of my brain asks what the hell is HE doing there? And on November 11 - Armistice Day - it seems particularly jarring.
Before Veteran’s day was Veteran’s day, it was Armistice day - a day intended to commemorate the moment in 1918 when PEACE broke out. After the “war to end all wars,” there seemed to be a general understanding that sacrificing 9 million men and countless civilians for no discernible purpose was a pretty bad idea. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the armistice went into effect, thus ending the most hideous wholesale slaughter humankind had seen up until that time. The Germans, the French, the British, the Americans (including my own grandparents) finally were able to put down their arms and start for home, carrying with them a lifetime’s w
orth of emotional scars, leaving behind thousands of acres of identical white crosses. And each Armistice day thereafter for many years, towns across America would host parades in which men and women like my grandparents would once again put on their old uniforms and walk solemnly down city streets followed by marching bands, usually stopping at a memorial or a cemetery to lay a wreath. The dream at the time - and it was a dream - was that humanity really would learn from the horror of 1914-1918, that renewed ideals and a league of nations would somehow stop human beings from carving each other to ribbons en masse in the future. Armistice Day, beyond being a day of remembrance, was also a day of hope.
Somewhere along the line, Armistice day became Veteran’s day, and a celebration of warriors rather than of the end to combat. Woodrow Wilson’s dreamed-of League of Natins was diluted down to the ineffectual UN, which itself was subsequently relegated to irrelevance by dismissive American unilateralism. War, on the other hand, remains as popular and as deadly as ever: Just since the beginning of the Bush administration, the United States has entagled itself militarily in three separate conflicts - Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq - and seems to be itching for more.
Which leads us to a certain bitter irony: On Armistice Day in Europe, 2004, thousands of white crosses still stretch for miles across parts of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. In Falluja, on the other hand, tons of bombs continue to fall on houses, shops, factories, streets, schools, hospitals, and mosques as American troops and Iraqi insurgents swarm through the city, ripping each other to shreds (with the U.S. doing most of the shredding - superior firepower has its privileges). In Arlington cemetery this morning, we saw a draft dodger who has recently won an election by deriding the service of a man who fought in a war he himself avoided, standing in a cemetery filled with the corpses of men who died in his place, lauding the dubious achievements of men participating in a conflict every bit as pointless as the one Armistice day was created to memorialize.
Peace did finally come to Old Europe, but damned if the U.S. would let it break out in the Middle East; in Iraq, the notion of peace, of an Armistice, and for some, even of survival must seem like a sick joke. As Bush the part-time, country-club guardsman made his solemn pronouncements, some smalltown kid from Iowa or Kansas or Michigan (or Ramallah or Falluja or Mosul) was getting his brains splattered across a sidewalk somewhere, for no more discernible reason than the discredited excuses proffered up back in 1918. And somewhere, in some American town on some nameless American street, a couple of uniformed servicemen will knock on some family’s door to deliver the bad news, as George W. Bush, draft dodger, eats his dinner and settles in to watch TV.
Only in America.
David B. Livingstone/RabidNation