THE STRANGEST DREAM
a speech delivered beginning at 10:30 a.m. on the morning of November 11, 1983, at Keene State College, and timed to end just at 11 a.m.
Today is Armistice Day.
I know that will come as a surprise to some of you who are young enough to think that today is Veterans Day, but it’s not just Veterans Day. It’s Armistice Day. It’s only Veterans Day because the veterans are those who lived long enough to see the Armistice. The rest died. We’ll have to talk about veterans and death to understand what today means, but first we have to look at the notion of the Armistice.
On another occasion, perhaps, we can talk about why Decoration Day is disguised as Memorial Day, and how different the Pledge of Allegiance sounds without the words “under God” — almost the way our dollar bills look without “In God We trust” on them. But those are separate, if related, issues of youth, age, language and politics.
Today is Armistice Day. Not Victory Day — it’s amazing (or not so amazing) that none of those fabulous Victory Days we see in old newsreels or read about in history books have become major holidays. They fade quickly, we realize all too soon how hollow victory is. But Armistice Day lasts, it hangs on.
Armistice is not victory — but then, military victory isn’t victory either. Armistice is more honest. It says, “We will lay down our weapons and stop fighting, not because one of us has won, but because it’s time to stop fighting. We’re too tired, or too wounded, to go on.”
Now, what’s remarkable about this is that it’s exactly what all our leaders speaking from what is currently called “conventional wisdom” are telling us is impossible. They say that the Freeze is impractical, disarmament a Utopian pipe dream. Maybe that’s why they had to pull a switch of the holiday on us, because what they say is impossible has already happened.
Not in fiction, not in Utopia, but in Europe, at the end of a long, bloody war, when you think the antagonists were so locked into enmity that nothing would be left for them but victory or destruction. Villages were in ruins. The average life-span of a machine gunner on the Western Front was eight or eleven minutes, depending on which source you read — about the length of time it takes a missile to cross Europe today. From a war that began almost in camaraderie, with the famous Christmas truce during which enemy soldiers toasted one another in No Man’s Land, European youth slogged on through assaults, redoubts and trenches, salients, barbed wire and poison gas, until the very lines were sandbagged with corpses.
I do not exaggerate. And then fresh-faced American troops came running up, and the general effect on everybody was the cry, “This has got to stop!”
So they stopped it. Not right away, of course, and not without a lot of the trappings of the old-fashioned win-or-lose mentality. But nobody won, and everybody was losing, so they declared an armistice — or the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. That’s just a few minutes from now. They said, “Let’s everybody stop shooting.”
And they did.
Oh, but of course it didn’t last, not forever. Perhaps not even very long. But because something won’t necessarily last forever doesn’t mean it can’t be done at all. It’s not Utopia, it’s not fantasy-land. It’s history. And all those people who tell us peaceniks that it is impossible have already been proved wrong. Sixty-five years ago. Today. On Armistice Day. Right now. This minute.
There you are, dressed in your puttees and your khakis, with a funny hat on your head and a gas mask draped around your neck. You’ve been up to your knees in mud for a while, and you’re still coughing from a cloud of mustard gas several months ago. Agent Mustard, we might call it today — theirs or ours, it doesn’t matter, the wind shifts, you still cough.
You’ve been too terrified to move. Read the poets of World War I, read the novels if you want to know what war is like — rather, not what’s like, but what it is. Read Wilfred Owen, twenty-five years old, who, I’m sorry to say, died a week ago today. He didn’t live to see the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. He died on November 4, 1918.
Cramped in that funneled hole, they watched the dawn
Open a jagged rim around; a yawn
Of death’s jaws, which had all but swallowed them
Stuck in the bottom of his throat of phlegm.
They were in one of the many mouths of Hell
Not seen of seers in visions; only felt
As teeth of traps; when bones and the dead are smelt
Under the mud where long ago they fell
Mixed with the sour sharp odour of the shell.
But you haven’t been sitting in the trenches all this time. You’ve taken part in assaults, in attacks. Listen to a voice — William Manchester's — from another war tell what it’s like to kill in warfare:
Already I thought I detected the dark brown effluvium of the freshly slain, a sour pervasive emanation which is different from anything you have known. Yet seeing death at that range, like smelling it, requires no previous experience. You instantly recognize the spastic convulsion and the rattle, which in his case were not loud, but deprecating and conciliatory, like the manners of civilian Japanese. He continued to sink until he reached the earthen floor. His eyes were glazed over. Almost immediately a fly landed on his left eyeball. It was joined by another. I don’t know how long I stood there staring. I knew from previous combat what lay ahead for the corpse. It would swell, then bloat, bursting out of the uniform. Then the face would turn from yellow to red, to purple, to green, to black. My father’s account of the Argonne had omitted certain vital facts. A feeling of disgust and self-hatred clotted darkly in my throat, gagging me.
Jerking my head to shake off the stupor, I slipped a new fully loaded magazine into the butt of my .45. Then I began to tremble, and next to shake, all over. I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear: “I’m sorry.” Then I threw up all over myself. I recognized the half-digested C-ration beans dribbling down my front, smelled the vomit above the cordite. At the same time I noticed another odor; I had urinated in my skivvies. I pondered fleetingly why our excretions become so loathsome the instant they leave the body. Then Barney burst in on me, his carbine at the ready, his face gray, as though he, not I, had just become a partner in the firm of death. He ran over to the Nip’s body, grabbed its stacking swivel — its neck — and let go, satisfied that it was a cadaver. I marveled at his courage; I couldn’t have taken a step toward that corner. He approached me, then backed away, in revulsion, from my foul stench. He said: “Slim, you stink.” I said nothing. I remember wondering dumbly: Is that what they mean by “conspicuous gallantry”?
But you get used to it. You can get used to anything, even to thinking that peace is unlikely, disarmament impossible. And here it is, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
All the guns go silent.
Well, not all. Nobody’s perfect. But, to all intents and purposes, the war stops — not in victory or defeat, but in armistice. Nothing permanent, you understand, just a chance, just a slight chance, a breathing space for one more generation to grow up, William Manchester’s generation, your parents’ generation. A generation that will succeed in abolishing Agent Mustard, at least for a while.
A while is all we’ve got.
I don’t think it’s completely an accident that Armistice Day became Veterans Day just when the disarmament movements began making loud, peaceful noises. I’m not paranoid, I don’t think people sat around consciously deciding to obliterate the memory of the Armistice. But I do think that influential people grew unconsciously uneasy with the annual reminder (and Armistice Day is Remembrance Day in Canada) that war can be stopped. So they made a quick change. Let’s honor veterans. Let’s honor the fighters, the survivors.
I have no quarrel with that. By all means, let’s honor them. They may have been the fighters, but they were also the ones who stopped fighting on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. All the decisions of all the political leaders in the world would have been windy trash if these guys, these veterans, had wanted to keep fighting. History and fiction from the Trojan War onwards are full of stories of broken truces and failed armistices, but not this one. This one held, at least for a while.
And a while is all we’ve got.
I thank the veterans for that. They knew enough to stop fighting, to put down their guns and bayonets, to roll up the barbed wire, spike the cannons and can the Agent Mustard.
We can do it, too, can’t we?
I don’t know.
I grew up afflicted with nightmares about nuclear war, but I took regular fighting for granted. I did the things people my age did, like registering for the draft. I debated with my colleagues and classmates the what-ifs of pacifism and manhood. What if a guy came to rape your sister? What if we were called to go out against Hitler?
But somewhere in my childhood I had learned a song written by Ed McCurdy in 1950, before Armistice day and Decoration Day disappeared into Veterans Day and Memorial Day, before the Pledge of Allegiance and U. S, currency began using the name of the Lord. It was a song I came to disdain for its cheap sentimentalism and stupid utopianism. It went like this:
Last night I had the strangest dream I’d never dreamed before;
I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.
I dreamed I saw a mighty room, the room was filled with men;
The paper they were signing said they’d never fight again.
And when the paper was all signed with a million copies made,
They all joined hands and bowed their heads and grateful prayers were prayed.
The people in the streets outside were dancing round and round,
While guns and swords and uniforms lay scattered on the ground.
I don’t know when — it was really quite recently though — I realized that Ed McCurdy’s song wasn’t cheap utopian sentimentality. It was history, as much descriptive history as William Manchester’s memoir of killing his first Japanese soldier and as much history as Wilfred Owen’s trench poetry. It’s the history of the Armistice. It sings not about what might happen, but about what already has happened once.
For a little while it lasted.
But a while is all we’ve got.
There are those who tell me that the peaceful ways of peace will never work. But the bloody ways of war are those that have never worked, they negate themselves. The bloody ways of war are effective only when they stop dead in their tracks and become the peaceful ways of peace.
We are a world at war longing for peace, we say, like the man who keeps hitting himself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops.
War hasn’t worked. It doesn’t work. If we say that war stopped Nazism, we must also admit that war and its oppression bred Nazism, or we should remember that neither war nor peace will stop a terrorist — that, George McGovern reminded us a couple of weeks ago, is the definition of terrorism. But at least, perhaps, we can cool out the climate of war, make it harder for a new Hitler to rise up with a Cruise missile in each fist and a bandolier of B-1 bombers strung along his breast.
War doesn’t work.
The armistice can hold, for a while,
And a while is all we’ve got.
But peace without justice is a wasteland. There can exist no true peace without justice, without the fruitful conditions of a peaceful life, and justice cannot be accomplished without peace. The two are bound together, and we who commit ourselves to what we call peace-work, to sustaining the armistice (a holding action) must commit ourselves equally to creating the conditions that diminish the possibility of another Hitler or Stalin or a world-terrorist closer to home.
Peace and justice — the two are inseparable. When you stand up and fight for death, in death’s camp, waving death’s flag, you don’t have to worry about the living conditions of the stupid survivors. If you call yourself a practical realist, of course, recognizing that we all eventually do join death’s party, then why not watch the fireworks and the hell with justice?
But if we are of the party of the living, under the banner of life, we have to dedicate ourselves to the living — in humility and beauty — recognizing that a while is all we’ve got. A little while. But, if we can make it through this generation, we can make it to the next, and somebody else will be there to carry forward the party of life another little while.
All we’ve got, An armistice. The clock keeps ticking — eight minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock, four minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock. We can’t stop time, but we can set it back a little. We may not be able to arrest death, but we can, like a defending football team, push it back. Give somebody else a chance to try. Make a space.
A little while.
Starting here and now in the final year of a long and bloody war. Starting this minute, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
A little while is all we’ve got. It’s all we need — an armistice.