“A Call to Armistice” is dedicated to Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan, a decorated Iraq war veteran who became a strong critic of the war. Montalvan served 17 years in the Army, doing two tours in Iraq. He received two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. His book, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him, which was a NY Times list best seller, advocated for the use of service dogs and raised awareness about the number of veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I met Luis and Tuesday when we served together on a Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day panel. Montalvan died at 43.
Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day
”Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day” is an annual discussion group, sponsored by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, in Indianapolis. Vonnegut, a WWII vet, was a prisoner of war and survivor of the fire-bombing of Dresden. As a POW, he was tasked with digging bodies out of the rubble of what had been a densely populated metropolis. That experience became the basis of his novel Slaughterhouse Five. After the war and for the rest of his life, Vonnegut was a passionate and outspoken pacifist.
In 2015, I served on the “Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day” panel, along with Captain Montalvan and the writer Dan Wakefield. It was moderated by Steve Inskeep of NPR. The discussion focused on how creativity might help veterans understand the experience and trauma of serving in a war. But for this BigCityLit reclamation, we’re going to consider the distinction between commemorating an Armistice rather than a Veterans Day.
Armistice: from the Latin arma meaning arms (meaning weapons), plus sta meaning stop.
This is the 101st anniversary of the founding of Armistice Day. It is also the 64th anniversary since it was changed to Veterans Day … will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?
In 1918, after “the war to end all wars,” which wasn’t called WWI until WWII – the world agreed let’s not do that, again! So leaders designated one day a year – the eleventh day of the eleventh month – to reaffirm our allegiance to peace. What a grand idea!
But when WWII started, the annual Armistice ceremonies put leaders in the awkward position of having to praise peace while prosecuting war. This dilemma continued to hound the fumble dicks who kept getting us into war after war after war after war, as if it were a good thing they couldn’t put down.
Finally, in 1954, after the end of the Korean War, which congress only called a “police action”, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day. That one-word difference gave leaders the pomp and protocol of waxing poetic about the sacrifices of living veterans.
This is a good time to mention that I am a veteran of war – U.S. Marines, Vietnam, 1967-68. But to be true to the facts, I should say that I am a veteran of an “engagement,” as congress never officially declared that one a war either.
Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the sole authority “to declare war”. It has done so only 11 times in our 243-year history, and not at all since WWII.
They have, however, voted 23 times to authorize limited military ‘engagement’, including Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Limited military engagements, interventions or police actions’, are not mentioned in the Constitution, but they are, nonetheless, the common currency used when congress shirks its duty to declare or vote no to a proposed war.
In recent years, it has become common practice for these congressional votes to occur after American troops are already engaged, intervening or policing as ordered by the executive branch. That being so, these unofficial wars are in violation of the constitution. And in effect, they deny We The People a say in horrific acts being done in our name.
Further limiting our say in whether or not we go to war is the fact that we presently have an all-volunteer military. One regrettable upshot of that, is that very few families are directly sacrificing for the wars the U.S. is currently involved in. If we’re going to war – with or without congressional approval – shouldn’t we all have skin in the game?
Arguably, it was the sheer number of people who protested Vietnam that brought that carnage to an end. And the reason there were so many protesters is because every (male) citizen had to register for and be subject to a national draft for military service, within 10 days of turning 18. The year I went to Vietnam, the U.S. was drafting 55,000 young men each month. Multiply that by the number of people in each potential draftees’ family and circle of friends and that’s a lot of feet on the street and a lot of votes.
Back then, however, a citizen could not vote until 21. So you could be drafted at 18 and sent to war, but if you survived and returned at 20, say, you could not vote. That’s why the law was changed to allow voting at 18. And that, too, happened because everyone was in and enough of us said let’s not do that, again! (A good place to mention that I could not vote the first year I was home from Vietnam.)
Sadly, because of the all-volunteer army, young people today don’t have to worry about a draft. As a result, many don’t know or care about those serving, or that our country is involved in many war-engagements. You might think not having a draft is a good thing, but consider: ending the draft also took away a powerful way to end or prevent having to go to war.
In 2004, John Kerry proposed a national public service draft, featuring a menu of activities of national service – working in schools or hospitals, in forests or on infrastructure projects, and, of course, military service. When politicians today call for a reinstatement of the draft, they are usually referring to the Kerry model.
Today, we are involved in seven shooting engagements, including Afghanistan – where we’ve been since 2001 – America’s longest war. Our soldiers are also killing and being killed in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Yet, except for recent reporting on Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, that invited a slaughter of our Kurdish allies by Turkey, when was the last time you saw an article about those ‘engagements’? Impeachment and Trump sideshows aside, journalism no longer seems to consider wars to be newsworthy anymore.
If these engagements are not in the news and congress doesn’t have to officially approve them, and they are fought by an all volunteer military, who is sending our troops off to all these wars? Is there a pattern here that supports peace?
The distinction between commemorating peace rather veterans and a day of gawking at military equipment on parade is a distinction about more than a change of words. It’s also about considering whether we should reclaim our rights as citizens to have more of a say in whether or not we go to war.
One way to ensure that all of us have a say is to insist that congress do two things. First, check that their constituents support any proposed war plan. Second, having obtained the will of the people, officially declare war before sending soldiers into harm’s way.
Ever hear of a veteran with PTSD from serving peace? That alone might be a good reason for a Call to Armistice.
Richard Levine’s Now in Contest is forthcoming from Fernwood Press. A retired NYC teacher, he is also the author of Richard Levine: Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press, 2019), Contiguous States (Finishing Line Press, 2018), and five chapbooks. He is an Associate Editor of BigCityLit.com, and the recipient of the 2021 Connecticut Poetry Society Award. His review “Poetry for a Pandemic,” appeared in American Book Review, Nov-Dec 2020, and the review “The Spoils of War” is forthcoming. website: richardlevine107.com.