Published on
the Austin American-Statesman

Remember the Roots of Armistice Day

Margret Hofmann

Our daughter Barbara was born on Armistice Day 1952. This was the day on which the Western World celebrated the end of World War I. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918, the peace treaty between the Allies and Germany was signed. Little Barbara's father had been born in Texas a few weeks after Armistice Day, while my parents, who lived in Berlin, Germany, were making plans for their wedding.

It seems incongruous that our baby's grandparents had officially been "enemies" until that very day. And so had her parents, my husband and I, officially been enemies, 34 years later.

When Barbara arrived on Armistice Day, 1952, we saw this as a symbol and chose Frieda as her middle name. Frieda is the German word for "Peace". This seemed especially appropriate, since both her grandmothers' first name had also been "Frieda". Then, in 1954, the decision was made to change the name and purpose of Armistice Day to a holiday on which we honor United States veterans of all wars.

Surely, the official arrival of the end of the Great War would also signify the beginning of a great period of peace. War had truly become too terrible ever again to be considered a justifiable solution to disagreements between heads of state! Airplanes, only recently developed as means of peaceful transportation, had been transformed to become tools of war. Pilots could drop bombs on the "enemy" from a safe distance, so that they themselves were in little danger. And this distance made it possible for the pilots to kill those who lived on the other side of a country's arbitrarily established border, people who had been designated as "enemies", without ever seeing their faces. Without ever seeing them at all.

Mankind had glimpsed the abyss which would most certainly become a reality with the murderous possibilities created by an air war. Certainly, every thinking person would ask himself or herself: "Is there no better way to solve economic or political problems than by dropping explosives on families?"

When the Great War ended, millions of young women would never have husbands. They had all been killed.

Countless children grew up without fathers.

Where were the young men to work the farms? The sons to take care of their aging parents? The skilled workers? The future professionals who were killed before they even had a chance to begin their studies?

But we seemed to have learned little else but to look for scapegoats and to think of revenge.

O yes, we also became experts in constructing hundreds of thousands of near-identical white crosses and in lining them up neatly on endless fields. We see these fields in almost every country and admire the symmetry, while we forget that each cross represents someone's son, someone's father, someone's brother, someone's husband, a life extinguished.

There must be a better way. There must be a better way than contributing to an atmosphere which makes violence likely and acceptable.

We have also learned, because most of us felt no reason to question it, that winning a war means to kill more people and to do it faster, than the other guy does.We have not only learned to ask few questions. In fact, we have learned not even to care to ask questions. We have learned to accept that our country's prestige (prestige?) demands that we have more nuclear warheads than any one else has, and that our country's greatness is to be measured in our ability to kill more people than all other countries in the world. We agree that a country's strength tends to be measured in the amount of resources it spends on defense.

We have not learned to use the world's treasures to the world's benefit, to consider the ways of nonviolence as they have been demonstrated so successfully by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Bishop Tutu and many ordinary people whom we encounter in our daily lives.

The United States has been involved in at least eight wars since the signing of the Armistice. In addition, the 40 years of the Cold War represented over 14,000 days of uninterrupted risk that most of our world may be annihilated, but it also offered a continuous opportunity for the expression of gratitude for the miracle that it did not happen. Instead, its end was greeted with regret because military installations and manufacturing plants of weapons and other instruments of destruction might now have to be closed.

When will we recognize that war is the most terrible and counterproductive way to settle differences, to demonstrate one's superiority? Instead, anything connected with the military is considered patriotic, but peace marches are controversial, if not downright suspect. War should never even be considered as a solution to any kind of a problem. Absolutely nothing is glorious about it. I have experienced six years of it, and often barely escaped with my life.

So a day that was observed because it symbolized peace gradually morphed into a day to honor those who had been killed and those who had been fortunate enough to survive. Those who lost their limbs, those who had lost their sons or their fathers. And those whose sons and daughters are now persuaded to pay the price, again, because whatever little we did learn, we conveniently refuse to put into practice.

We must ask ourselves: Why? Why are we not open to any insight? We should recall President Eisenhower's thoughtful words that every gun which is made signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, from those who are cold and are not clothed.

Yet we continue to be incredibly generous with expenditures for everything military, with little oversight and few questions asked. We pass this mindset on to other countries: Why are we so proud to be among the top arms dealers to the developing world? The developing world's leaders should be encouraged to use their countries' meager treasures to enhance their desperately poor peoples' lives instead.

Were we not once admonished to beat our swords into plowshares?

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Hofmann lives in Austin.

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