On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, an armistice signaled the end of "the war to end all wars." When Veterans Day, then referred to as Armistice Day, was first officially recognized in 1926, the resolution stated that the date "should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations."
As a boy in the early '50s, I understood this desire to perpetuate peace. I used to sell 10-cent paper poppies on Veterans Day and Memorial Day to support the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The vets themselves were the kindest and best customers. Even then I could sense the pain and psychic wounds of the untold stories behind their weathered faces — though I couldn't express what I saw.
In those days, "Armistice Day" marked for me the importance of peace and compromise and an end to war.
But since then, the promotion of peace and mutual understanding between nations has been eclipsed by a nearly constant stream of military actions, including Korea, Lebanon (twice), Vietnam, Cuba, Cambodia, Iran, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kosovo/Yugoslavia, Iraq (twice). Not to mention covert CIA actions — Guatemala (subverting democracy, 1954), Iran (installing the shah, 1953), Chile (overthrowing Salvador Allende, 1973), El Salvador and who knows what else.
We are, in fact, far more adept at waging wars than at waging peace — with the notable exception of the years in Japan and Germany immediately after World War II. Now we are in the midst of another war, although it's not quite a war and it's not quite an armistice.
There is no question about it: Our troops did a marvelous job of fulfilling their initial assignment in Iraq — demonstrating valor, courage and skill. But no one prepared these young men and women for nation-building. As one young captain said, "I was trained to wage war, not to become the mayor of a village."
Clearly, we know how to train men and women to do battle. But what is needed is equal devotion and national commitment to peacemaking. We need to train our young men and women to make peace with the same amount of resources, skills, intellectual savvy and patriotic commitment as we do for our young fighting women and men.
What would happen if just 10 percent of our national defense budget were devoted to peace studies? What would happen if the National Peace Academy, first proposed back in the 1970s, became a reality as strong and vital as West Point and young Americans became sentinels for peace — outstanding internationally for their remarkable diplomatic and political skills for peacemaking? Certainly, some notable efforts are under way, such as the United States Institute of Peace, but they seem to have had minimal impact on public consciousness and on our own foreign policy.
Former Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen put his finger on the radical challenge and conversion needed for ending all war. A strong critic of the huge buildup in American militarism in the 1980s, Archbishop Hunthausen said, "War begins — I believe — in our hearts, and that is where it must end."
On this Armistice/Veterans Day, we might wish to walk in our mind's eye up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and read Abraham Lincoln's ringing affirmation of the human spirit and of Americans' deepest desire for reconciliation and for a lasting peace:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Can we now apply this same spirit of reconciliation to our differences with the international community and truly become more noted for peace than for war?
The Rev. Patrick Howell, SJ, is dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. He writes a column for the Faith & Values page of The Seattle Times.
© 2005 The Seattle Times