Armistice Day was first celebrated on Nov. 11, 1918, to mark the signing of an accord that led to the end of World War I. It honored the war dead — both soldiers and civilians, affirmed peace as a universal principle and promoted world peace. It continues to be observed with bell ringing ceremonies on Nov. 11 in many countries around the world.
In 1954, the U.S. Congress re-branded Armistice Day as Veterans Day. This name change in the U.S. context shifted attention from the senseless carnage of war and the importance of peace to a narrower focus on honoring soldiers and glorifying the military. A day that was intended to celebrate and promote an end to war became part of our nation’s war-friendly culture.
Although Veterans Day ceremonies undoubtedly express heartfelt recognition of the sacrifices all soldiers make, they often encourage shallow patriotism and cheap veneration of the troops. Neither is the friend of soldiers. They also reinforce ideas that U.S. military supremacy is the key to U.S. and global security, and that supporting the troops requires being silent when faced with wars fought in service to indefensible foreign policy goals.
This Veterans Day we are mindful that Armistice Day’s original goals to end war and promote peace are ecological imperatives in light of the climate emergency and other ecological crises that confront us. We are also aware that many U.S. military policies and practices aggravate these crises.
Our very existence is in peril in part because war threatens the environment. Intentional damage to the environment during times of war leaves a large ecological footprint. The use of herbicides and defoliants such as Agent Orange in Vietnam left both American soldiers and the Vietnamese people sickened for decades. Land mines and cluster bombs left behind in Indochina, Kosovo, Iraq and elsewhere continue to injure or kill. Tens of millions of these devices are still present on three continents.
Additionally, radiation poisoning after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed many thousands of Japanese civilians long after World War II ended. Despite the fact that nuclear war would amount to ecocide, the U.S. is committed to upgrading its nuclear weapons arsenal over the next 30 years with an estimated price tag of $1 trillion.
CO2 emissions that result from burning oil and other fossil fuels are a leading cause of climate change. If we fairly assess U.S. foreign policies then we must acknowledge that our country’s desire to control oil producing nations often has been the leading factor in deciding when and where to wage war. The U.S. military’s appetite for oil is insatiable. It is the world’s biggest institutional user of oil and is itself a leading contributor to the climate crisis. It is also generally exempt from environmental regulations.
The U.S. military’s ecological footprint also includes dumping carcinogenic and radioactive chemicals into U.S. waterways. Over 400 U.S. military bases are known to have contaminated water which has sickened not only our troops and families, but surrounding communities. Also, maintaining 800 bases in over 80 countries comes at a heavy cost environmentally and to the American taxpayer.
Finally, even as the Trump administration guts environmental standards and blocks climate mitigation efforts, the U.S. military budget has soared. Approximately 60% of the federal discretionary budget is dedicated to spending for war and war preparation. Privileging military spending in the midst of an unprecedented climate crisis that is aggravated by military policies and priorities is the epitome of foolishness.
In 1991 the local chapter of Veterans for Peace brought back the peace tradition of Armistice Day, including bell ringing ceremonies that are carried out throughout the U.S. This Armistice Day let us remember that peace is now an ecological imperative and the Native American wisdom tradition which says, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”
Michael McDonald is president of Twin Cities Veterans for Peace, Chapter 27. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is emeritus professor of justice and peace studies at the University of St. Thomas.