Sunday, November 11, 2012

Armistice Day

My uncle Edward Kapteina, left  c. 1917 - we called him "Uncle Doc". Right, another Springdale doughboy whose name escapes me.

            Most Americans probably couldn't tell you why Veteran's Day is celebrated on November 11. Here in France it's Armistice Day and that's what we called it at home when I was a kid. At 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the shooting of the Great War stopped. In my hometown of Springdale, Pennsylvania, there was a small war memorial on Pittsburgh Street where the Post Office now is. I can remember going there with my mother and seeing old men who had been "doughboys" in World War I parading to the memorial along with our fathers, the GI's of WWII. The fireman's band always played "My Buddy" and somebody always read "In Flanders Field."

            As these old doughboys died off, Armistice Day began to lose its significance to Americans so now we call it Veteran's Day to honor everyone who's served their country. In France, they honor all their veterans, too, but the day hasn't lost it's significance and probably never will. I thought about those Springdale commemorations as I wandered down to the local memorial at about 10:30 this morning.              

           The monument "Aux Morts de la Guerre La Ville de Bordeaux 1914-1918"
stands, appropriately, across the street from the biggest cemetery in town. Carved into a huge stone wall are the names of every Bordelais killed in WWI and there must be over 1,000 entries. Beneath these have been added the dead from WWII, no small number itself. Almost every town and village in France has a monument like this and, no matter how small the place, the numbers are astonishing.  Every American who buys into the "cheese eating surrender monkey" bullshit would do well to consider that France lost 1.4 million men between 1914-1918, nearly 5 % of it's population. By the time the war was only a few weeks old 100,000 French soldiers had already been killed.

            Several of my great uncles, Gunia and Kapteina, fought in WW I and the name Durand, my grandmothers' name (and one of the most common in France) is etched 13 times into the Bordeaux monument so I felt I had at least a small stake in the local ceremony. Things got underway promptly at 11 and even though the uniforms look pretty much the same as ours, I felt a little out of place. We've only been here for about 2 months now, but the first few minutes of this ceremony made me realize that no matter how long we stay, I'm always going to be an outsider. It isn't the language barrier as I'd have felt the same standing in Trafalgar Square. The history, traditions, the protocols and even the music are all different and I'll never fully appreciate the significance of these things since I wasn't brought up here.            

            Something else occurred to me as I watched about a dozen local military and police officers have medals pinned to their chests. What passes for patriotism in America has become cheap and easy because it isn't backed up by anything meaningful. All you have to do is put a dollar store "Support our Troops" magnet on your car, wrap yourself in the flag (both of which were probably made in China), thank everybody for their service, chant "USA" at the Olympics and roundly denounce everyone who doesn't do the same. Then for good measure you can refuse to sacrifice one dime in taxes to help pay for 10 years of sending the same weary troops off again and again to some Middle East shithole. Enough preaching.

            Today for the first time, I got a little homesick. La Marseillaise could be the world's most stirring anthem but it's not The Star Spangled Banner. And the band played marches that were appropriately martial but nothing I recognized. So I went home, stuck my iPod in the Bose player and played  The Stars and Stripes Forever. 


  1. Wonderful. Your postings are getting better and better the longer you are there! Wonderful.

  2. Claire, if nobody else ever read this stuff, I'll keep doing it just to hear from you.