A Time for Gratitude and Caution
November 11 is the day Americans know as Veterans Day. It was originally called Armistice Day, the day the War to End all Wars simply stopped – brought to a close by the signing of the Armistice between the Allies of World War I and their German enemies. It was neither a treaty nor an unconditional surrender, but it did mark the total defeat of Germany and her allies in the war. The war stopped at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The peace treaty that officially ended the war was not signed until January 1920, but the fighting ended November 11, 1918.
Negotiations to end the war began in late September and continued through October and into November 1918. Even after agreement on the armistice had been reached, the armies continued to fight – each hoping to be in the best possible position should the hostilities resume. A total of 2,728 men died on the last day of the war, including one German soldier killed minutes after 11 a.m. by American soldiers who did not know the war was over. He was an officer approaching them to tell them his troops would be vacating the houses in which they had been billeted. The last American who died was killed as he was charging the German line 60 seconds before the fighting was to stop.
We look at these kinds of historical facts today and shake our heads. How arbitrary it all seems. What a waste of lives.
Yet human history is replete with tales of wars, conquests, roaming warriers, warlords, robber barons, etc. Why do they do it? Why do we do it? Do we do it ourselves, at home in our own little worlds?
I’m afraid I’d have to say that Yes, we do commit similar acts ourselves within our small circles of family and friends. We may not do it physically, but our words and actions can be ruthless and cut deeply.
When I was in high school, I was part of an experimental program in which we had a “block class” that included instruction in English and Economics/US Government. One of the portions of the class included the class becoming a city. We were all citizens of this city and had to deal with issues that cities and their citizens face. That included having elections to select our leaders. We were divided into differing socio-economic groups. Certain areas of our city were prosperous and others were not. Some of the challenges involved how to provide the services needed for the health and well-being of city residents without breaking the budget.
I ran for Mayor and won. It was the last office I expect ever to try to attain. I had no idea how difficult it could be to meet the needs of so many different people fairly. My hat is off to those folks who are willing to struggle with these issues on local, state and national levels. It’s a thankless job, despite the prestige one gets.
A few of us from the Block were selected to participate in another “game” at a local college. In this game, we were divided into two nations sharing a common border. As fate would have it, a skirmish broke out on the border. Each team/nation was given a set of information about the skirmish – what had happened, who had fired first, how many had been injured, where the troops were currently located, etc. Some were designated as the military who were engaged in defending our borders. Others were part of the political and diplomatic teams who were supposed to find common ground and get the war ended.
I was one of the persons sent to the United Nations to try to settle the issue. We had been told that the other nation had started the war. They had moved onto our territory first and we were simply defending ourselves. So I argued that they were the agressors. We were the innocent victims. They should withdraw and pay compensation for the cost of the war, etc. To my surprise, my counterpart from the other side had exactly the same argument! As the “game” drew to a close, we were informed that both sides had been given exactly the same information. The actual facts of the case would never be known by any of us. We had all been making speeches and arguing our cases based on information that had a 50-50 chance of being untrue.
I learned something from those two games played as the Vietnam War raged outside our classroom. Nothing is as clear-cut as it seems. There is always the possibility, indeed the probability, that at least part of the information on which a course of action is to be based is incorrect. Whether those providing the incorrect information are doing so knowingly or not does not change the fact that it is incorrect. The culpability for causing harm to others, of course, depends on the degree to which one is aware that the information is not true and spreads it anyway. However, it doesn’t hurt to assume as a general rule that at least some of what I “know” is not really true! If nothing else it lends a bit of humility to the equation.
That doesn’t mean that individuals should not take stands supporting basic human rights or not call a spade a spade when governments or others in positions of power are abusing their power or harming the innocent. That’s part of the call to prophetic witness within our Judeo-Christian tradition. However, we are called to do so recognizing our own complicity in the system and knowing that there is always more to any story than at first meets the eye.
On this Veterans Day, may we be filled with a sense of gratitude for the efforts and sacrifices of those who have given their lives to ensure that life would be better for those who came after them. May we thank those who went to war and returned alive for the gift of freedoms they have protected. May we be grateful to those who serve in other ways than militarily to foster human rights and protect human dignity. May we reach out to those whom we consider to be enemies and to those who consider us to be enemies, hoping to find common ground on which we can move forward in peace. And may we respect those who dissent when those around them call for aggressive action or war, recognizing that there may be realities about which we are unaware that would lead to totally different conclusions if they were known.
Most importantly, may we be peacemakers – ever willing to listen, to seek common ground, to build a sturdy foundation for the future. As sisters and brothers sharing one earth, as human beings, we can do no less and be true to our calling as children of the Most High.