Remarks at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, Calif., on October 12, 2018.
Video slowly uploading will be at tu.be/jKhnteeo4k8
Exactly at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918, 100 years ago this coming November 11th, people across Europe suddenly stopped shooting guns at each other. Up until that moment, they were killing and taking bullets, falling and screaming, moaning and dying, from bullets and from poison gas.
Wilfred Owen put it this way:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Sweet and proper it is to die for a nation. So they have said for centuries. It may be proper, never sweet. Also never beneficial. Also never to be appreciated or thanked or imagined to be some sort of service or honored, only mourned and regretted. The largest number of those who do it today in the United States die for their nation through suicide. The Veterans Administration has said for decades that the single best predictor of suicide is combat guilt. You won't see that advertised in many Veterans Day Parades. Bitter truth is never as proper as sweet lies. There are very few parades on Conscientious Objectors Day, but in a wise society headed in the right direction there would be.
And then they stopped, at 11:00 in the morning, one century ago. They stopped, on schedule. It wasn't that they'd gotten tired or come to their senses. Both before and after 11 o'clock they were simply following orders. The Armistice agreement that ended World War I had set 11 o'clock as quitting time.
Henry Nicholas John Gunther had been born in Baltimore, Maryland, to parents who had immigrated from Germany. In September 1917 he had been drafted to help kill Germans. When he had written home from Europe to describe how horrible the war was and to encourage others to avoid being drafted, he had been demoted (and his letter censored).
After that, he had told his buddies that he would prove himself. As the deadline of 11:00 a.m. approached on that final day in November, Henry got up, against orders, and bravely charged with his bayonet toward two German machine guns. The Germans were aware of the Armistice and tried to wave him off. He kept approaching and shooting. When he got close, a short burst of machine gun fire ended his life at 10:59 a.m.
Henry was the last of the 11,000 men to be killed or wounded between the signing of the Armistice six hours earlier and its taking effect. Henry Gunther was given his rank back, but not his life.
The physically and mentally wounded, and the impoverished, would continue to die for some time. The flu spread by the war would take even more victims, and the disastrous manner of eventually negotiating the peace would predictably -- by facilitating a sequel, Mass Insanity Part II, the Return of the Sociopaths -- take more lives than the war and the flu combined. The great war (which I take to have been great in approximately the Make America Great Again sense) would be the last war in which some of the ways people still talk and think about war would be true. The dead outnumbered the wounded. The military casualties outnumbered the civilians. The killing took place largely on battlefields. The two sides were not, for the most part, armed by the very same weapons companies. War was legal. And lots of really smart people believed the war lies sincerely and then changed their minds. All of that is gone with the wind, whether we care to admit it or not.
But I want to back up a couple of months to September 28, 1918. That was the day of the stupidest parade I've ever heard of. And, let's be frank, this is a world awash in stupidity. Donald Trump wanted to hold a weapons parade in Washington this November. That was not exactly a genius idea. It was not as insidious as renaming a holiday for veterans but barring Veterans For Peace chapters from participating in parades, as some cities do every November. Trump's proposal was more vulgar, and also embarrassing. Vulgar because it would have advertised the mass murder machinery of an operation the U.S. public is supposed to think of as philanthropic. Vulgar because it would have promoted some of the biggest campaign bribers, excuse me -- contributors, who operate within the pristine U.S. election system that is already under threat from nefarious if bewildering Facebook ads bought by the dastardly commies, I mean Russians. And embarrassing because traditionally the weapons parades have been used when there was a pretense of a victory, as during the Gulf War. Boy did that victory work out well for everyone, huh? To hold a weapons parade just because it's been so many years since anyone could pretend a victory for longer than it takes to stand on an aircraft carrier in San Diego might be, as someone might tweet about it, sad.
Why was this shindig cancelled? That it would have cost millions of dollars seems like a sensible reason except that that's a rounding error in a subcontract entirely susceptible to getting misplaced entirely by the accountant gurus at the Pentagon. Part of the reason, though it's the last thing they'd tell us, is probably that the public, the media, and the military showed very little interest in the thing, and many adamantly opposed it, including many of us who publicly promised to turn out everyone we could to block it, denounce it, and instead celebrate Armistice Day. We also committed to going ahead with that celebration, and all the more so, if the parade was cancelled. But when it was cancelled, a number of groups lost all their enthusiasm for moving forward. That I consider a shame and a strategic error. But some scaled back events are planned for DC, and some good models are available for promoting Armistice Day everywhere on earth. More on that shortly.