12 Nov Best Wishes on Veterans Day, Armistice Day, and Remembrance Day
It’s not an exclusively American holiday – far from it. Indeed, its origins are dismayingly transnational – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the Armistice took hold and finally ended the Great War in 1918. And as the historian John Lukacs has pointed out in many books, the history of the twentieth century takes place in the immense shadow cast by the First World War; in historical terms, it is the generator of the twentieth century. The wars of the Yugoslav succession, the map of the modern Middle East, and so much else, inside and outside of Europe.
Veterans Day is not something that I had ever paid much attention to, but I recall a couple of years ago attending the board meeting of an international NGO on which I serve and having one of my fellow board members show up with a small cloth poppy in his lapel. He was a staunch British leftwinger – columnist for the Guardian, etc. – and I was somewhat surprised. But he rather sternly reminded me that it was, after all, Remembrance Day, and that although the Yanks had lost (by comparison) a rather modest number of soldiers in the Great War, Britain, France, and Germany had lost millions upon millions upon millions. In Flanders’ fields, where the poppies grow, etc. He was unhappy that Remembrance Day had fallen upon progressively less attentive times. Veterans Day makes more sense to Americans than Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, because the Great War is not really the Great War for us – World War II is, if anything. We honor the veterans, living and dead; it is not the same as the observances in the interwar years in Britain, for example, when everything – so I understand from the social histories – came to a dead stop for a full fifteen minutes.
My friend described himself as a George Orwell-style English Left patriot, man of the left, man of unapologetically English parochialism, despite having spent most of his life as an anthropologist and journalist traveling the world and proclaiming the anthropological relativism of human beings. I was once returning from a trip to Tajikistan and the Afghan border, looking at the landmines situation there – I was stopping through London and, desperate for intellectual conversation and all that, I called ahead and invited myself to dinner; he graciously obliged. I found myself at dinner with a surprising number of leading London writers – on the day, as it happened, of Princess Diana’s famous if weird interview with the BBC. The interview-as-therapy. The dinner guests were entirely transfixed by the television; I had been out locating clean underwear at Marks & Spencer and was less so. At the end, someone said, well, Ken, you’re not from here, what did you think of Diana? I said without thinking – “I’m glad the Battle of Britain is over – to judge by that interview, I don’t think you folks are up to it anymore.”
Dead silence. Foot in mouth. I was given to understand that it was not insulting Diana that was disturbing – rather, one should never assume that one’s properly leftwing politics meant that one was any less a proper British patriot.