October 27, 2017
Reviving the Spirit of Armistice Day
Ninety-nine years ago, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, bells tolled around the world, and people poured into public squares to celebrate the end of what was called The War to End All Wars. For many years, Armistice Day was observed as a day to remember the dead of WWI and rededicate ourselves to never letting it happen again.
This November, aided by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a bell will toll again from the 24-foot-tall Swords to Plowshares Memorial Belltower to be erected, for the fourth consecutive year, on the lawn of our State Capitol in Raleigh. The public is invited to visit and add an inscription to the monument, bearing witness to how war has affected their lives. These silver plaques, fashioned from recycled cans and glistening in the wind, bear heart-rending inscriptions in many different languages.
The Belltower was dedicated on Memorial Day 2014 by the Eisenhower Chapter of Veterans For Peace with former NCSU Alumni Director and Air Force Veteran Bob Kennel presiding. Its inspiration was the bronze door on the Belltower at NCSU which bears the inscription “And They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares.” This Old Testament passage, sacred to Jews, Christians, Muslims and others, is a reminder of the original spirit of Armistice Day.
In 1953, President Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” But one year later, he signed a proclamation renaming Armistice Day as Veterans Day. Since WWI, with the day’s original intent forgotten, we have seen the rise of fascism in Europe, the horrors of WWII, the Korean War, the War on Vietnam, and our endless ‘wars on terrorism.’ The War on Poverty didn’t stand a chance.
One way to redirect resources towards peacemaking is to raise taxes on weapons manufacture. Two North Carolinians, Majority Leader Claude Kitchin and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels led efforts during WWI to replace President Wilson’s regressive tax plan with one that included taxes on excessive war profits. Despite Kitchin’s opposition, the war profit tax was later repealed.
Sadly, Kitchin, a main opponent of U.S. entry into the European bloodbath, and Daniels, who published the precursor to the News and Observer, were also instrumental in the violent overthrow of a progressive multiracial coalition in North Carolina in 1898. The climate of racial repression then may have fed the nationalistic hysteria that drew us into the war.
One goal of the Belltower project is to revive discussion about ways we can transition from war. Another is to change the limited and undemocratic way we commemorate its costs. Conventional memorials instruct us to be thankful to those who, ‘gave their lives for our freedom,’ but many lives, both military and civilian, were taken involuntarily. Combat veterans cannot forget that good people died on the other side. Interestingly, my two grandfathers fought against each other in WWI. Did they each believe they were fighting for freedom? Rather than raise such questions, those who profit from war exploit our survivor’s guilt and encourage us to remain silent. But since the dead can’t talk, mustn’t we?
On the West side of the Capitol, around the corner from where we set up our Belltower, stands a controversial memorial “To Our Confederate Dead.” I agree they should be remembered. But, like most war memorials, it was erected by a powerful few with only partial remembrance of who sacrificed, or got sacrificed, in that war. What about the thousands of North Carolinians, white and black, who fought for the Union? The civilians who were killed or died of wartime deprivations? The mothers and fathers and children? Or those never able to recover from physical and psychological wounds and those who took their own lives? Their stories, too, deserve to be told, and you will find them in the inscriptions that have been added to our Belltower.
Perhaps the most radical but most healing aspect of our Belltower is the inclusion of inscriptions memorializing the suffering of our ‘enemies.’ I added inscriptions for both my grandfathers. Another memorial plaque was dedicated by US Marine Corps Veteran Mike Hanes to “The Iraq citizen who died in one of our raids. Died in my buddy’s arms. An image I will never forget.”
This Armistice Day, let us – at long last – beat our swords into plowshares.
Roger Ehrlich is an Associate Member of Eisenhower Chapter 157 Veterans For Peace and co-creator of the Swords To Plowshares Memorial Belltower, which will be on view at the State Capitol Nov 3 - 11.
If you are in North Carolina, volunteer to help with the Belltower project!