It isn’t a word we use a lot today. Etymologically speaking, it comes from the Latin “arma,” which means “weapons,” and “statium,” which means stopping. So an armistice has to do with stopping the use of weapons. In modern terms, it is a legal agreement that stops the fighting between warring parties, often while the terms of peace are negotiated. In an armistice, there are no declared winners or losers. There is just stopping the use of weapons.
Which isn’t the same as peace. But it’s close.
Close enough that when a congressional resolution was passed in 1926 to commemorate the end of World War I (often referred to at the time as “the war to end all wars”) with an annual observance, they called it Armistice Day. The resolution’s sponsors said it was being done in hopes that “peaceful relations with other nations” would “never again be severed.” In 1938, as Adolf Hitler was consolidating his Third Reich powers and preparing to invade Poland, another congressional act made the designated Nov. 11 Armistice Day “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace” — a cause that took a serious pounding during the next decade.
And the next.
By 1954, a little more than a year after the end of the war after the war after the war to end all wars, Congress was ready to tweak the holiday a bit. The 1938 act was amended, replacing the word “Armistice” with “Veterans” and turning Nov. 11 into Veterans Day, a day to honor all American veterans of all wars. It was a sobering acknowledgment that those “peaceful relations with other nations” are more easily severed than was anticipated in the euphoric aftermath of World War I.
And that sometimes weapons can’t be stopped.
I assume that is at the heart of why my son-in-law Brock is preparing for his fourth overseas deployment, this time to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army sergeant. To be honest, I’m not really sure why peaceful relations are severed over there and whose weapons aren’t being stopped. I seem to remember my president saying more troops would be coming home. And yet here we are, with 2014 just weeks away, and Brock is preparing to go.
“If I were you,” I told him one day, “I’d demand an explanation.”
Brock just smiled that calm, unruffled smile of his — the one that says, yes, I could rip out your larynx with one finger, but I choose not to — and said, “The Army doesn’t seem to think it has to explain itself to me, so it usually doesn’t.”
And Brock is OK with that. Please understand, this is a strong, bright young man. He’s working on a Ph.D. in English (which, come to think of it, may suggest some kind of mental defect, but that’s a discussion for another column). He isn’t naturally given to thoughtless conformity or arbitrary honor. He enlisted in the aftermath of 9/11, and for him his service has always been a matter of duty, loyalty, patriotism and personal integrity.
“I don’t want to go, but this is what I signed up for,” he says, simply. “The Army has been good to me, and good for me. If they need me, they know where to find me.”
I suspect there are a lot of young veterans who are feeling the same thing this Veterans Day. While leaving their families, sweethearts, jobs and studies for a year to slog and swelter in the Afghani hinterlands isn’t among the things they would choose to do, it is something they are willing to do in the service of their country — just as veterans of a seemingly endless stream of wars and conflicts have done before them. And so we honor them for their commitment as much as for their courage. And we pray for them. And for their families. And for peace.
And if not peace, at the very least armistice.
(To read more by Joseph B. Walker, please go to www.josephbwalker.com.)