Dulce et decorum est pro Americae mori. Being British on Veterans dayPosted: November 11, 2014
Today is Veterans day. Something that almost everyone outside of the United States assumes is just what Americans call Remembrance day, or Armistice Day. Whilst this is technically true, It is the same day and is also about remembering the experience of soldiers, specifically (though not limited too) those of the first world war.
Growing up in the U.K. meant that every November 11th is a day of mourning and reflection on the horrors of war. My memory of school around late October was filled with history lessons were teachers attempted to hammer home the absolute terror, misery and pointlessness of sitting in a damp hole whilst all your friends die of random machine gun fire. The entire day is colored in terms of remembering a human global disaster. Respect for those who have died is generally shown by donning poppies (Usually red but white is also fine) as a reference to the Belgian and French fields covered in those particular flowers.
This is why Veterans day has a strange feel to me. Whilst it’s not exactly a celebration the notion that the day is commemorating the deaths of around 40 million is not in evident. This is probably because by definition; The men and women Veterans day celebrates came back. This is probably why there isn’t a national outcry at November 11th themed Ice cream or sales events to clear inventories for the Christmas shopping season. Everywhere else that commemorates November 11th views the day as a funeral. There are processions to the Cenotaph as opposed too parades, moments of silence as opposed to musical acts, those processing are holding wreaths, not flags and the order of the day is remembering those who suffered not Honoring those who served. There is no sense of anything other than an oppressive sense of global disaster the wars of the 20th century were and continue to be.
I don’t begrudge Americans for acting like this. The Civil war was the last time Americans experienced war with more than soldiers leaving home. The attitude American culture seems to have built up is best summed up by Jack Nicholson in ‘A Few Good Men’; Living in America requires not asking too many questions of those who guards the walls of the state. The other edge to this however seems to be to regard soldiers with a kind of inhuman awe, in which suffering on behalf of the state and the subsequent gratitude expressed by citizens at parades is its own reward; therefore celebrating ‘America’s Parade‘ for the freedoms the soldiers died for, rather than a funeral march for the fallen themselves. This is probably the result of the United State’s perception of itself as nation solidly based in an Ideology and guarded by eager citizen soldiers. There is also a difference in perspective about the costs and locations of wars. War does not happen to America, there is no popular memory of anything like the Blitz or even the Somme, nor is there an American equivalent to the wreckage of Coventry Cathedral. My grandmother used to tell me about her evacuation during the second world war as a twelve-year-old, during which she watched bombs rain down on Plymouth from across the bay. The last Americans who could tell that sort of story about an American city died sometime before the Truman administration.
It’s telling to note that large number of British artists that shaped the culture the second half of the 20th century were born either during or just after the second world war, meaning they grew up in towns and cities that were wrecked by war and could, unlike their American counterparts; see what war does aside take away young men. This proximity to living memory violence and death at home, that 99% of Americans lack is almost certainly not the only reason for the dirge of remembrance day, versus the pomp and ceremony of Veterans day, it is however the most striking.