Washington,DC - There is a special mythos to ending a war on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” that has clung to societal memories.
Some years it has been a grind-through-it event, when we were deeply engaged in other wars. One doubts that in the midst of World War II there was much attention paid to “Armistice Day” when the Great War had proved only a precursor to another greater one.
And during my boyhood, U.S. citizens were still celebrating “V-E” and “V-J” day proclaiming the victories in Europe and against Japan. “Armistice” Day had not yet morphed into “Veterans” Day.
Nor did U.S. citizens pay much attention to commemorating previous victorious wars when struggling through the sloughs of Korea and then Vietnam.
It has only been since the 9/11 attacks that U.S. citizens have paid greater attention to Veterans Day as more than another federal holiday during which to do some pre-Christmas shopping. Psychologically, we strongly needed to counter 9/11 terrorism and support the troops that we recognized were the “few” doing a hard, nasty job in far away lands. Offering them admiring speeches was the least we could do.
But the 2014 Veterans Day projects a different feeling. We had hoped it would be an implicit end to the long commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq—and willing to celebrate it with a sigh of relief. However, now it appears to be an entr’acte or intermission between rounds of brutal, extended combat for the indefinite future.
U.S. engagement in Iraq and Syria (and Canadian commitments in Iraq) conveys the déjà vu all-over-again impression that such is only the tip of the spear. The “no boots on the ground” mantra supposedly guiding President Obama’s Iraq-Syria policy looks increasingly tenuous. Those additional 1,500 troops, pushing U.S. military presence over 3,000, will ultimately be recognized as advisor-trainers who go to the field with their “pupils” to provide inter alia targeting information.
So for 2014’s Veterans Day, Washington was virtually in lock down. Ostensibly, the closure of much of Mall-connecting roads was driven by the massive “Concert for Valor” designed to include a three-hour evening medley of patriotic and personal favorites from individuals/groups such as Eminem, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, and Rihanna. Totally dominating the Mall, organizers projected crowds upwards of 800,000. One can also believe that Washington security officials were not unhappy that a massive security presence might deter terrorist action.
Attending Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Canadian Embassy was oddly different. Security was present, but not ubiquitously omnipresent. It was a perfectly beautiful sunny autumn day with temperatures ranging above 50 degree Fahrenheit. Indeed, it reflected the entr’acte mood as a crescendo of early winter temperatures will fill the rest of the week (having already given Canada a taste of Alaska storms). The scripted ritual of a traditional politico-military ceremony (the non-Canadian audience was overwhelmingly from the U.S. armed forces and foreign military attaché cadre of Washington’s embassies) was comforting: Canadian and British national anthems; a reading of the origins of Remembrance Day and the wearing of poppies; two minutes of silence; and John McCrae’s iconic poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Looming in the background for Canadians (and the reported massive 50,000 crowd in Ottawa) was the reality of domestic terrorism with the separate killings of two Canadian soldiers by Islamic-inspired fanatics. As the embassy chargé (speaking in the inexplicable absence of Ambassador Doer) noted, it was not just the brutality of the assaults but the deliberate attack on the seat of government epitomizing Canadian values. We are already remembering what is in the offing for tomorrow.
As an ancien combatant with two young grandsons, one would wish it not to be—while anticipating that it will be so.
Thus it was also appropriate that remembrance poppies were universally worn at the embassy commemoration. In today’s terms, it is almost impossible to conceive of the circumstances that resulted in 888,246 Commonwealth deaths in World War I—the figure memorialized in ceramic poppies in London. Once the epitome of U.S. Veterans Day ceremonies sold by soldiers from local chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, one could almost believe the poppy fields have been sprayed with herbicide, so few of them are visible.
I have saved my poppy for future Remembrance Days.
David Jones is a former U.S. political counsellor who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa from 1992-96.
(Originally published in the Hill Times)