Everyday Life

Remembering 11.11.11

On November 11th at 11 Am and 11 seconds of 2011, I was meeting with a group of 6th graders as part of a Veterans Day event at an excellent middle school in a small town frequently characterized as affluent, but much more economically diverse than this term suggests.

I was impressed by the program. It was organized and run by the students at the town’s middle school with the help of school personnel. I gave some brief remarks about the Vietnam War, shared some remembrances of my service with them, and answered as many of their questions as I could.

At the beginning of my portion of the program, I was presented a thoughtful certificate of appreciation by one of the students who escorted me to the library where I met with other students.  I think that a couple of dozen other veterans participated in the program. Each had his own story to tell.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs explains that Veterans Day is observed on November 11th regardless of what day of the week on which it falls.

“The restoration of the observance of Veterans Day to November 11 not only preserves the historical significance of the date, but helps focus attention on the important purpose of Veterans Day: A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”

The origins of Veterans Day (previously known as Armistice Day, and in some parts of the world as Remembrance Day) is traceable back towards the end of World War I when on November 11, 1918 at 11 AM a temporary cessation of hostilities between the Allied Nations and Germany went into effect. The “Great War,” actually ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. It was the hopeful thinking at the time to think that World War I would be “the war to end all wars.”

President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the commemoration as Armistice Day. As originally conceived, the commemoration was to be observed through a variety means, including public gatherings, parades and a suspension of business at 11 AM on November 11th. Wilson positioned it as follows:

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations …”

A series of legislative actions established Armistice Day and then changed it to Veterans Day, ultimately returning its observance to November 11th. The official focal point of it nationally is a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Ceremony at 11 AM on November 11th conducted by a color guard which represents all of the United States military services. A “present arms” ceremony is conducted, typically a presidential wreath is laid at the tomb, and “taps” (an emotionally charged musical expression) is played by a bugler. President Obama participated at the ceremony this year, and made brief remarks. Other elements of the ceremony take place in the amphitheater near the tomb.

Throughout America, other ceremonial gatherings and commemorations occurred. These are occasions and places for remembrance and means of bringing communities together. While I was at the middle school, a town level commemoration was held in a small area in town, its symbolic center. A newspaper article reported that a keynote speaker, a veteran, discussed the contributions of community members during major conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the present. It was a relatively small gathering, with a bit more than 100 people.

I was impressed by the event at the middle school. It showed me how within an institutional framework, people can be brought together, young and old, to share experiences as a community. There was a coming together of school personnel, students, and veterans. Through discussions and remembrances age gaps were breached and great and small issues were discussed in an organized and thoughtful manner. From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, I felt warmly welcomed.

Students listened politely to my brief remarks, but they were eager to ask their own questions about small issues and large. I welcomed them all and tried to answer respectfully and thoughtfully.

Preparing to meet with the students led me to re-remember some of my own experiences. Many were just snippets of what I experienced ranging from the bigger philosophical, moral and ethical issues to elemental phenomenological occurrences. I recalled odd bits of thoughts such as an old, Asian and African folk saying, “When elephants dance, the grass gets trampled.”

While there is a timeless quality to this expression, during the Vietnam War, its meaning was quite specific: when troops fight, noncombatants are hurt (wounded and killed, with property destroyed). The numbers bear that out. Between November 1, 1955 and May 15, 1975, approximately 58,272 U. S. personnel were either killed or subsequently died as a result of the war; and 303,644 were wounded of which 153,303 required hospital care. Estimates of casualties for the Vietnamese and Cambodians are much larger: between 216, 000 and 316,000 South Vietnamese military forces were killed; and according to one estimate provided by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, more than 1,011,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong were killed, and about 4,000,000 civilians were casualties, split equally between the North and South. In post war political violence, casualty estimates range from a low of 400,000 to approximately 2,500,000. Between 1975 and 1979 in the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, 1,700,000 civilians died.

After the French were ousted from Vietnam in 1954, at least two separate but related wars were waged, a civil war between nationalist interests; and a proxy war, which aligned North Vietnam with the Soviet Bloc, and South Vietnam, which was aligned with the United States and its allies. It was a hot spot in the Cold War, with much grass trampled.

  • Andrew

    It sounds like, more than anything, the sixth graders were trying to understand your experience. They are themselves growing, they are just starting to build their own identities, they have no reference point for the Vietnam conflict, and perhaps you were able to help achieve for them (or with them) some meaning making. I dare say that sixth grade and your experience in Vietnam have virtually nothing in common, with perhaps one exception.

    You mentioned that in preparation for the talk you challenged yourself to think broadly about what you learned from your experience in Vietnam, and I think more importantly you probably challenged yourself to think about how through that experience you grew and changed as a person, as did the people around you. Perhaps it is a stretch, but as a community of social beings we have in common the reality that we are constantly growing, changing, and attempting to define ourselves against our own experiences, our own perceptions, and those around us.

    The sixth graders might not yet know it, but they are growing, changing, and defining themselves through their experiences in the sixth grade – just as you were growing, changing and defining yourself through your experiences in Vietnam. Perhaps that goes without saying, but perhaps also some of those sixth graders understood that through those experiences you were defining and redefining yourself, just as they are – in the sixth grade.

    Or perhaps they were simply more excited to hear about your experience in combat.

    Interesting stuff.