Veterans Day, Memorial Day: From Memory to Transformation

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 11/12/2003

When I was a child in the Baltimore public schools, every year on November 11, at 11:11 a.m., we all stood in utter silence for a full minute.

It was Armistice Day, and that moment was when the guns fell silent to send World War I — the war that was supposed to end all wars.

By the time I was in school, we knew the "Armistice" had failed: the blood was raining even thicker in World War II.

And then came Korea. Who could mention "armistice" without embarrassment? So in 1954, November 11 became Veterans Day. A day to remember and honor the veterans who had suffered most from those wars our government had sent them to.

Whether they had fought in good wars or bad wars, whether they were volunteers or draftees — we honored the veterans because they bore the brunt of "our" decisions.

Even after all the distance and the disillusion, the date itself was still so sacred that it resisted the homogenization that moved most of our festivals to the "nth Monday."

How do we honor that sacred time —and other sacred American days, like Memorial Day — in oiur own lives today?

This year, American soldiers have kept dying day after day in an ongoing war even though our officials had proclaimed the war already won.

They die day after day in a war we now know our officials demanded for reasons quite different from the ones they proclaimed. - In clearer words, a war fought by reason of a lie.

No President greets and honors their bodies, because that would remind the public that our sons and daughters are dying because our officials were lying.

Thousands more - the newest veterans — returned maimed but hidden away, not even named or counted in the daily media, sent to inadequate hospitals because the money spent on killing cannot be wasted on healing.

This year, Veterans Day was the time for us to insist: —


And now that this Veterans Day is past, let us start thinking seriously about Memorial Day, Monday May 31:

Unless by some miracle of contrition and redemption the US has by late May withdrawn from Iraq and turned over to the UN and to Iraqis the process of healing Iraq, we should again draw on the great reservoir of decency and desire for peace that is at the heart of these American holy days.

I think these observances might best be done in local and regional fashion. With months to prepare, they could attract thousands.

Let us mourn for the dead and maimed — our own and the Iraqi civilians who have died and suffered as well. But memory and mourning are not enough, just as remembering the end of World War I was not enough.

Some of our officials are already saying, "Even if this war was a mistake or a deception, now we have no alternative but to send even more troops to put down the resistance to our presence."

Not so.

First, for the sake of America: If some of our officials have forcibly stuck our collective American head in a gas oven, the alternative is to pull it out.

Second, for the sake of Iraq: Transfer power immediately to the UN, with a mandate to work for Iraqi self-determination. The world that warned against this war and the Iraqis whose country it is will be far more effective in cleaning up the mess the present US government made than the destroyers can possibly be. The US presence is a continuing provocation to still more violence.

And what about the deeper meaning of these sacred days?

For every community and every people, the seasons of our joy and sorrow bespeak our deepest values.

We may turn these days into binges of buying and consumption, saying these are our highest values.

We may turn them into celebrations of bloody war and shattered cities, saying these are our highest values.

We may turn them over to Presidents and Pentagons and Corporations, saying that our culture is no longer drinking from the wellsprings of democracy.

Or - we can turn the memories of past transformations into moments to seek new transformations.

This year, memory is not enough. Every one of us must become those who stood weeping at the eleventh hour in 1918 and said — No, Not again, Never again, Stop.