May 19, 2022

Commentary

by Julia Whitehead

Peace Be With You, Kurt Vonnegut: Armistice Day Baby

As the founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, I know a thing or two about the concept of Armistice Day because Kurt Vonnegut advocated for Armistice Day. Vonnegut was born on Armistice Day, 1922. His relatives and friends, teachers, parents of friends, and others were all too familiar with the horrors of the First World War. They knew the value of peace. Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions, in 1973:

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, … all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.

*

I imagine the old men with whom he spoke. I imagine these men in different settings describing that golden silence. I imagine Vonnegut thinking of Romeo and Juliet. I imagine Vonnegut thinking of music.

Let’s discuss each one of these items on Vonnegut’s list of sacred things in reverse order: music. Often we hear patriotic songs on Veterans Day, the drama of war, the nationalism, “our mothers’ sons are better, stronger, and better equipped than your mothers’ sons.” When I think of the concept of Armistice Day, I think instead of something like “White Cliffs of Dover,” whose very words say, “There will be smiles and laughter, and peace ever after…” Peace ever after.

When I was a young Marine Corps officer, during the Clinton Years, I remember my fellow lieutenants, some of whom came from military academies specifically training the young for war. I remember thinking these young men spoke and behaved so differently from the Vietnam veterans who were the lieutenant colonels and colonels in charge. Many of the Marines my age were bloodthirsty. They were angry with the world. They wanted to prove something.

(This was not every person. Some were like me – needing a job and perhaps looking for a large family – others saw it as a stepping stone to something else, others were bound to fulfill some rite-of-passage family expectation, and still others had their own reasons). As far as the older officers went, though, every single one of the Vietnam Veterans I knew were war-weary. The young lieutenants also questioned the effectiveness of women Marines. The Vietnam Veterans did not. They’d served with women for years.

Continuing to work backward on Vonnegut’s list of the sacred, let’s talk about Romeo and Juliet. I find it interesting that Kurt chose to address Shakespeare as part of this topic of Armistice Day. But Romeo and Juliet? Psychologists explain the behavior for these young lovers as that early period of a passionate relationship, when we literally lose oxygen to the brain. We cannot think straight. Nothing is as absolutely breathtaking. This is labeled as an immature period of a relationship, a lustful stage that gets laughed off as something that will soon end when the bills come due and the baby is up all night crying.

I love that Vonnegut includes it here, though. He doesn’t say “your kingdoms” are sacred or “your family crest” is sacred. He says that story about those crazy teens who are so madly in love that they would rather die than be apart is sacred. Perhaps he also means the language that describes them is sacred. Perhaps he means the writer/poet who took the time to write about them is sacred. Being an artist is sacred. Being a lover is sacred. Sharing yourself through your work or through your love is sacred.

He says ‘it” is sacred rather than “they” are sacred, so we know he’s talking about the work itself; the story is sacred. Maybe Vonnegut thought love was worth dying for, but perhaps oil is not. Perhaps he liked that these lovesick teens chose their demise rather having their fate chosen for them, like so many of Vonnegut’s fellow soldiers. Vonnegut himself barely escaped alive.

Vonnegut watched his fellow Americans and other allied soldiers die as the Royal Air Force strafed the train that carried him to Dresden, Germany, where he was mistreated by his Nazi guards as a prisoner of war when the Allies firebombed the very city in which he was held. The RAF didn’t know there were allied soldiers on that train. But. Still.

There are those who choose to criticize Vonnegut’s anti-war stance, shared throughout his life. I would encourage them to stop and think about what he experienced. He was nearly killed by the Nazis, nearly killed by the Allies, and nearly killed specifically by the firebombing representatives of his own native country for which he was serving. That’s absurd. For the foot soldier, at least, that’s absurd. Leaders of nations don’t think it’s absurd – well, some do – after their own children go off to war.

Even the hawkish Rudyard Kipling understood, prior to his own son’s demise in war, as he wrote in “Tommy”:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country,” when the guns begin to shoot;
Yes it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
But Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool–you bet that Tommy sees!

Kipling’s son died before he could experience Armistice Day. Vonnegut said he doesn’t want to throw away something sacred like Armistice Day. He said Veterans Day is not sacred.

On Veterans Day, my kids’ elementary school had a program honoring those parents who were veterans. I never recall any of us attendees feeling at peace. Some of those parents had PTSD, some were struggling to get their VA medical appointments scheduled, some were trying to transition into the civilian community and find a regular job. Every one was struggling in some way. What did our children learn from this? What might they have learned from Armistice Day, with everyone participating and hearing from veterans, as Vonnegut did on what it meant to feel peace?

Finally, I lump all the rest of Vonnegut’s words from that Armistice Day passage together into one sentiment – that one minute of silence he describes honoring the end of the war in 1918, during the eleventh minute, during the eleventh hour, during the eleventh day, during the eleventh month, when soldiers recall the Voice of God speaking. God is associated with peace. God is not associated with war. Bureaucrats associate God with war. Impassioned commanders addressing troops associate God with war.

But Vonnegut didn’t come back from his war thinking that God was there cheering on the carnage. And Vonnegut, a self-proclaimed atheist, still referenced God in this reverent way even on his deathbed. For the World War I veterans Vonnegut talked to, God’s presence was evident at the moment of peace, this one minute of silence when “all the people of all the nations” joined together as one peaceful being.

What would be different if all of the classmates of all of the schools stood hand-in-hand at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and in other venues, coworkers and teammates and service providers and vendors and bus drivers and soldiers all took that one minute to celebrate peace? Kurt Vonnegut, the Armistice Day Baby, knew what would be different.