Commentary: Remembering Armistice Day

Armistice Day storm
A picture from the infamous Armistice Day storm that swept across the Midwest on Nov. 11, 1940. It killed 49 people in Minnesota, alone.
Photo Courtesy: Minneapolis Star Journal, Minnesota Historical Society

by Gordon Stewart

At 11 o'clock every November 11 every class at Marple Elementary School stood up at our desks to observe two minutes of silence to remember those who died for their country and to pray for peaceful relations with all other nations: an end to war.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month marked the "armistice" -- the suspension of hostility - that had taken effect on the Western Front of World War I ... the "war to end all wars." It looked back to remember fallen soldiers and all victims of war, and it looked forward to what President Woodrow Wilson called "...the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations...." We had a sense of being with all the other children of the world who were praying for peace at 11 o'clock on November 11, an international Armistice Day.

My teachers and classmates and I were observing a 1938 Act of Congress that had declared "the eleventh day of November in each year a legal holiday -- a day dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as "Armistice Day."

I remember being confused. My father had returned from World War II, and I was proud of my father. We were remembering fallen soldiers, our own nation's and those of other nations as well. Was war behind us now? Had war been a necessity, but now it wasn't? There was an unresolved emotional tension to Armistice Day, a creative tension, like an unresolved musical chord, between historical realism and the hope of peace with all other nations. Were we an un-peaceful people when we had gone to war in World War I and World War II, but now we were a peaceful people who would never go to war again? Had we been wrong or had we been right to go to war?

Congress resolved that chord in 1954 with an act that turned Armistice Day into Veterans Day -- a day to look back and give thanks for the service of our own soldiers in times of war. The optimism of "a day dedicated to the cause of world peace" had disappeared in favor of remembrance.

On the 11th day of this 11th month, there's a deep sorrow. The image of empty boots and of 13 soldiers' helmets hanging on rifles from yesterdays memorial service at Fort Hood sends chills down my spine. There is a stillness in the air -- a sad stillness. When a soldier kills a fellow soldier on our own soil and U.S. soldiers continue to fall in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can't resolve the tension we observed at Marple Elementary School when Veterans Day was Armistice Day. I wish I knew how.

------

The Rev. Gordon Stewart is pastor of the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.