This past Wednesday morning at all school assembly in the gymnasium, my school’s principle reminded the students that we would not be having classes on Friday because of Veterans Day. “We will be taking the day off to honor the men and women who have fought and are fighting all around the globe to protect our country, so that we can go to school and so our parents can go to work and feel safe.” We then sang several choruses of “This Land is Your Land” in special tribute to the Armed Forces.
Later that day, back in our own classrooms, my mentor teacher asked students to describe what they thought Veterans Day was for, and where it had come from. Many of them raised their hands and repeated explanations very similar to the one the principle had given at all school assembly. The teacher did not immediately reject or challenge any of the students’ ideas, but instead posed a second question:
“But why November the 11th? How did that day get chosen?” None of the students knew the answer, nor did I.
My mentor teacher then went on the give a brief account of the history of the holiday which we now call Veterans Day, a history of which I was totally unaware. He informed us that November 11, 1918, while not the official close of World War I, was the day that weapons were laid down on all fronts, and the Armistice treaty was signed between the Allies and Germany. It was a moment in which the military opponents recognized that the horrendous bloodshed of the preceding years was not worth the cost that the global community was paying, and that different forms of resolution needed to be sought to end the war. While not exactly a radical event, it was a moment of collective and stated opposition to further violence, a step in the direction of peace. In 1919, US President Woodrow Wilson declared November the 11th Armistice Day–meaning a ceasing of arms–in honor of the unprecedented numbers of dead from WWI, and the commitment to peaceful negotiations made on that day.
WWI had been famously called, “the war to end all wars.” After the breakout of World War II, with millions dying during its duration, it became clear that this slogan was a misnomer. A day which celebrated the goal of world peace appeared naive, as the planet transitioned into an era in which warfare on a global scale seemed a necessary political and economic tactic. In the wake of WWII, Armistice Day saw its name changed to Veterans Day, ostensibly to honor the veterans of multiple wars. However, this seemingly semantic change resulted from the acknowledgment that there would, in fact, be many more wars, that militaristic aggression was not a thing of the past, and that a day which honored the war dead seemed more useful than one which honored the total ending of war as a practice. “What does it tell us,” my mentor teacher asked, “that a holiday designed to celebrate peace only lasted for a few years? What does it tell us about the times that we are living in right now?”
The students were given the task of going home and asking their family members if they knew the history of Veterans Day, and seeing how many of them had the information. I liked this tactic of encouraging the kids to be educators, and trying to connect classroom learning back to the community, but I appreciated it even more as an attempt to the challenge the myths about the military which we have all be fed, and which our school’s principle articulated so concisely during all school assembly. To me, this critical assignment took a step in the direction of an important realization which all learning communities ought to have: That we need to find ways of honoring our troops which do not perpetuate racist, xenophobic and classist notions about the dangers of other oppressed peoples, and which leave economic, educational and political machines of domination–so integrally tied to the US Military–unchecked and unchallenged. We have got to respect and honor the children of our communities enough to teach them the truth, engage them in honest, critical and nuanced discussions around legacies of war and militarism, and trust that they have enough of a stake in their own lives, histories and communities to be able to take those conversations seriously.
A close friend of mine has a sibling who is currently serving in the Marines, and who identifies as trans. They are seriously contemplating a second tour of duty in Afghanistan, because it is the only way they will be able to afford the top surgery they are hoping to get. To me, this story is a sign that we have got to think differently not just about the legacies of war and militarism on our planet, but also about the role that they play in our current lives and communities. The fact that the US Military is the number one employer of US citizens should not tell us that it is a benevolent and honorable job supplier, but rather that we are participating in an economy fueled by genocide, one which pits the working poor of virtually every nation on the globe against one another. The recent overturning of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell should not be celebrated as a progressive victory, but understood as a strategic move to mobilize more oppressed communities around militarism and systemic violence which have long stood as a bulwark against them. I propose that on this day we honor the troops, our families and our communities by rejecting military myths, and struggling for a vision of economic justice which undermines and defames the military, instead of saluting it.