November. Veterans Day. I’m a veteran who can feel its approach in her bones. The smell of autumn in the air, the leaves turning — once again I’m overwhelmed by complicated feelings, so hard to explain. This year it’s been especially trying because I’m also bearing up under the weight of the PBS series on the war in Vietnam. Meanwhile the public arena is a minefield of viciousness over how we properly demonstrate our patriotism. It makes my hands shake to see it — how we can't even get through a football game without tearing each other apart.
Last week, right after the calendar turned to November, I walked to the memorials on the grounds of the Baltimore County Courthouse — the gleaming black Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and beyond it the newer, earthen-colored memorial dedicated to veterans who served in Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. I go there often. I write in my notebook there and sometimes take photos — in the morning and at dusk, on gray days and snowy days, in the dappled light of a gorgeous Memorial Day.
As I turned the corner on the courthouse lawn and approached the memorials, I was upset by something new on the path: Close to my feet, standing small but erect above the fallen leaves, a line of crisp American flags. I was upset, but I took a photo anyway, getting down on one knee to achieve the best angle. There were people walking by — it was lunch hour, a pretty day. All of a sudden I wanted to accost those innocent, unsuspecting people. “Armistice Day!” I wanted to yell at them. “Flags! Couldn’t we just for once put the patriotism away?”
Few people care that the 11th day of the 11th month wasn’t always called Veterans Day, that it used to be Armistice Day. Few people see the irony.
Once upon a time — 99 years ago in fact — a devastating world war came to an end. To celebrate the peace, our nation set aside one sacred day each year, a day to join all nations in recalling the moment when at last the arms were laid down. Eleven bells would toll solemnly at the 11th hour, and nobody would march in patriotic parades displaying military might. But time went by, and then after a second devastating world war, our nation gave up on Armistice Day. The 11th day of November became Veterans Day instead. It was as though we no longer believed in that blessed moment of peace when all the arms would be laid down. We dedicated ourselves to honoring those brave men and women who still carry the arms for us, the ones we keep sending off to wars we don’t fully understand and haven’t the courage or the political will to end.
Of course I didn’t yell at anyone that day at the memorial. I got a grip and began my ritual of reading the dedication and the names of the dead. It took some time; on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Baltimore County, there are 148 names.
I used to have a quarrel with the wording on the memorial: "Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Dedicated to the Citizens of Baltimore County who served their Nation in Southeast Asia, 1957-1975." I used to think it wasn’t right to dedicate this place to all of us veterans, just because we served. It seemed to me a memorial belonged to the dead. But lately I’ve had a change of heart. Veterans like me, whose service included seeing with our own eyes the suffering and death of others — maybe we do need a place dedicated to us. There we can sit on the bench in the shade of old trees, year after year of ongoing war, and consider what we know about the costs.
Maybe we even need this special day, the 11th of November. But if it were up to me, I’d ask a favor of the nation: Please return to us the name — and the blessed spirit — of Armistice.
Madeleine Mysko (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a novelist, contributing editor to the American Journal of Nursing and a member of the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace; she served in the Army Nurse Corps at the Brooke Army Medical Center during the Vietnam War.