And They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares

Being as I spend most of my time looking at World War I memorials, I sometimes forget that Veterans Day, for most Americans, is the kind of federal holiday where you have to stop and think about why the library is closed and you aren’t getting any mail. There are still ceremonies if you know where to look for them (usually, at the town war memorials); there are often articles about veterans in the daily newspapers; Google has made a Doodle about it, but it does not command the public attention it once did. In the interwar years, Americans gathered yearly in long parades and large public gatherings to honor the dead of World War I. They did this even though Armistice Day was not made a federal holiday until 1938. In 1954, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day, to honor veterans of all wars.

Such celebrations made sense when most Americans had war as a living memory. The wars of the early twentieth century were highly visible both overseas and at home, full of communal narratives about both sacrifice and loss. War looks different now, and so do we. The generations where most families had someone who served in the military are distant from my own. Both my grandfathers served, but their children did not, and I know very few people in the military my own age. Occasionally I have ROTC and NROTC students in my classes, and I work regularly with military records. But America has long since separated into military families and civilian families, and through and through, I am a civilian, as are most of my friends.

What, then, are we focusing on today? What are we honoring or remembering?

What we often forget about the symbolism of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and all of that is that this arrangement and insistence on ceremony meant that the guns kept firing right up until that moment, although it was widely known that an armistice was coming in the last weeks of the war. Some of the most tragic graves and memorials I encounter are for those who died in November 1918, even up to and including November 10th and 11th. American casualties often fall into this range, since Americans joined World War I so late and only reached Europe’s shores in bulk in the last six months of the war. The sense of futility that hangs over the whole war feels especially poignant at these grave sites.

Such was the fate, too, of Wilfred Owen, the British lieutenant and poet whose most famous work is his bitter rejoinder against “the old lie,” the Roman poet Horace’s line dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Though he survived three years on the Western Front, both on active duty and recuperating from wounds in hospitals, Owen died on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the war’s end. His mother received the telegram informing her of the news on Armistice Day. These stories make up a part of the original historical moment of this holiday, right alongside the images we prefer to conjure of jubilant celebrations and tolling bells.

A chance proximity this year brings to mind a different poem of Owen’s, however. Tomorrow Jews around the world will read parshat Vayera, the Torah portion that features the terribly infamous story of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac at the order of God. The ancient world is full of stories of parents sacrificing their children: Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia for the sake of good winds to bring him to Troy at the dawning of the Trojan War; the ancient warrior Jephthah promises God in the Book of Judges that if he is successful in battle he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his door upon his homecoming, only to be greeted at the threshold by his own daughter. These stories reflect a trade of some kind, however, where the sacrifice has some dubious and horrible reason attached.

What’s missing in the story of the Akedah, as it is known in Hebrew, the binding of Isaac, is that God offers Abraham no explanation. He simply orders it done, and Abraham, astonishingly, asks no questions, but simply prepares himself to do it. The language of this passage is famously taut; German-Jewish philologist Erich Auerbach describes it as “fraught with background,” as the language reveals so little about how Abraham is feeling or what he is thinking. We get only the tiniest sense of Isaac’s feelings when as they are walking up the mountain, Isaac blithely asks his father about their lack of equipment. “Here is the fire, and the wood, but where is the sheep for the offering?” he asks. Abraham answers only that God will see to that problem. We know nothing of Isaac’s reaction as the terrible realization takes hold, as Abraham binds him to the altar and raises the knife.

The story, as most know, ends with a miraculous diversion: an angel appears to Abraham and tells him to stop, that this experience was a test that he has passed. A ram appears in a nearby thicket, caught by its horns, and Abraham is instructed to sacrifice that instead. We are meant to understand that by showing such willingness to sacrifice his son, by being so willing to serve this higher power that he will sacrifice every single thing in his life, including his own child, Abraham has done a good thing. Wilfred Owen, like many, took issue with this.

In a brief poem written in July 1918, only four months before his death, titled “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” Owen offers his own interpretation of the story. The majority follows the language and the tense nature of Genesis very closely:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But here, when the story is reaching its proper conclusion, Owen does not allow us that moment of reprieve. Instead, after centuries of anticlimax, he pushes us forward:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

This story, with its emphasis on the Ram of Pride, suggests a different spin on the Akedah: it is not Abraham’s loyalty that God is testing, but rather his pride. And where Abraham’s loyalty is so unwavering that he will both sacrifice his son and then turn away from the sacrifice at the last moment, his pride is not. Ultimately, he (and of course, not so subtly, the leaders of Europe, those who hold power in their grasp but are too old to go out and fight for it on their own behalf) cannot back down from the commitment he has made, and he sacrifices his child, and the children of everyone else along with him, for the sake of his pride. This test, Abraham has failed.

That is one legacy of Armistice Day: the loss of the young. Most often, as Owen framed it, this loss comes at the hands of the old. It was not the teenage boys of Europe, not even the young Gavrilo Princip, who really began World War I, any more than it was American teenagers who began the conflict in Vietnam. But it was the youth of each generation that died, and every time, a different possible future died with them.

It is a widely commented upon fact that Isaac never speaks to Abraham again after this incident, at least so far as Genesis is willing to tell us. Isaac is the quietest of the Jewish forefathers, and indeed he must be: what words could fill the gap left behind by a father who is ready to let his son die like an animal? Owen, thousands of years later, was to ask the same thing:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

In the aftermath of World War I, Americans built all kinds of memorials to honor veterans living and dead – buildings, sculptures, trees. One of the surprisingly touching forms they selected were carillons: bell towers with enough different bells that they could play full melodies with a keyboard. Music, it seemed, might say something that words could not. Many years later, the composer Benjamin Britten would turn Owen’s words themselves into music, weaving them into his famous War Requiem.

But for many, like Isaac, it may have been that the only possible answer was silence. Moments of silence were observed at many of the Armistice Day ceremonies; they are still observed at many today. Perhaps, for civilians, that alone is enough of a way to observe this strange holiday: a momentary pause. That pause is an acknowledgement of something beyond the civilian imagination, and a moment of gratitude that we are free from imagining it. It is also a moment of grief both for the young who are sent off to war, and for the old who bound them to the altar and raised the knife. And it is a reminder that the future is precious and neither fixed nor guaranteed. To consider these things for a moment, to think of Wilfred Owen’s mother opening a telegram as celebration raged outside her window, is perhaps enough to remember.

Of all the World War memorials I have visited in this country, the one that has touched me the most so far was a carillon: the carillon of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Delayed by fundraising problems, the carillon was intended as a memorial to the school’s dead of the First World War but went uncompleted until 1947, after the Second World War had come to a close. NCSU did not rededicate it to the dead of the second war; they would build a different structure for that in the following years. Rather, they finished the carillon and chose a different Biblical line to carve into its door. It was, one committee member reflected after weeks of grappling with possible options, so obvious that they couldn’t imagine how they hadn’t thought of it sooner – and yet so far I have not seen it on any other memorial from the period. The words, of course, were those of the prophet Isaiah:


Today, we honor veterans by remembering their service and their sacrifice. Tomorrow, and all other days, we must honor veterans by turning aside the knife and looking to the future.

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