I just returned home from three intense days of union organizing training alongside an impressive group of workers, organizers, and leaders. This morning, a mentor of mine marked the sacred moment.
It was one hundred years ago today, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that the guns fell silent on the western front of World War I. More than twenty million mostly working class people had been slaughtered at the behest of their national leaders.
The great American socialist Eugene Debs wrote and spoke eloquently of the war’s implications for the average American. “I know of no reason why the workers should fight for what the capitalists own or slaughter one another for countries that belong to their masters,” he wrote.
His criticism of the war landed him in prison for sedition, but it also helped him garner nearly 1 million votes in the 1920 presidential election, while he was still a prisoner. His right to vote was stripped from him for life for speaking against the war, on behalf of the people who fought and died on battlefields in service to imperialist and nationalist symbols and pursuits that did nothing to feed, house, clothe, or liberate American families back home.
1918, that fateful year, is why we began celebrating Armistice Day, which would later be renamed Veterans Day in the U.S.
In a nation as divided as ours, military holidays rightfully provoke strong feelings. Some use it to beat their chests and wave the flag, extolling the infallible virtues of our country. Others use it more nobly, to advocate for the proper provision of care for those who have served in the seemingly countless wars since.
This day is, indeed, about honoring those who make selfless sacrifice in pursuit of a collective good. It’s also about recognizing the trauma of war on individuals and societies, the senselessness of poor people dying in service to rich men’s goals.
As Brother Debs put it in words that so terrified our government that it silenced and incarcerated him: “The working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war. If war is right, let it be declared by the people – you, who have your lives to lose.”