USC sociologist Michael Messner still remembers the day 35 years ago when he wished “Happy Veterans Day” to his grandfather, a proud World War I veteran.
“It’s not Veterans Day. It’s Armistice Day,” Russell Messner angrily retorted. “Those damn politicians went and changed it to Veterans Day so that they could keep having more wars.”
Armistice Day — the commemoration of the truce that brought the end of WWI — became Veterans Day in 1954 in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War. The reason, said President Dwight Eisenhower at the time, was to honor veterans of all wars, not just WWI.
“But to my grandfather and other World War I vets, that change symbolized for them a betrayal of what they felt was the promise of Armistice Day — not just the end of their war, but the end of all wars, and a commitment to peace,” said Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He elaborated on this in a recent article in The Conversation, to coincide with the centennial of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice that ended WWI.
Years later, Messner realized that his grandfather wasn’t unique: Many veterans of World War I and other wars were, and are, staunch advocates for peace.
His grandfather’s surprise reaction is what originally triggered Messner’s interest in veterans advocating for peace. Meetings with members of organizations like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace and About Face: Veterans Against the War spurred Messner to focus his research on their experiences.
Guys Like Me and true meaning of ‘Armistice Day’
Messner, whose research focuses on gender relations, men and masculinities, gender and sport and violence and anti-violence, still also vividly remembers his grandfather saying, “Guys like me get sent to war. It’s not those politicians who are fighting the wars.”
He heard an echo of his grandfather’s words during an encounter he witnessed at a weekly peace vigil in Santa Fe, N.M., between a young man and a group of older Veterans for Peace members whom the young man thanked for their service.
“An 81-year-old former Marine responded, saying, ‘You thanked us for our service. That was very nice of you. But you should know that the things we did when we were in the military, we did because we were told to. This work that we are doing right now — working for peace — this is our service.’”
Healing and reconciliation
Take Ernie Sanchez, for instance. It’s 2003, and Sanchez, a World War II veteran, is watching the American-led invasion of Iraq on television when he suddenly starts shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. Later, through therapy, he learns that what he experienced is post-traumatic stress disorder and that his symptoms reveal his deeply repressed memories of having killed between 50 and 100 Germans during the war. As part of his healing, he now speaks of those dead Germans as sons and brothers, people who were loved by their families, thereby humanizing them.
Sanchez is one of many veterans from different wars, from World War II to the Iraq War whom Messner, has interviewed as part of his research into veterans advocating for peace.
Their stories relate their paths to reconciliation with former enemies and to their own personal healing from trauma and from what Messner calls “the deep moral injury” they carry from having killed other people, sometimes in great numbers. All have dealt with the trauma of war and all have become lifelong peace advocates.
A commitment to peace
Messner decided to incorporate his research into a book — Guys Like Me: Five Wars, Five Veterans for Peace (Rutgers University Press, 2018) — to make these veterans’ voices and stories more visible to the American public.
“I think this is a particularly important time for their voices to be heard,” he said, “especially in light of our government’s efforts to radically increase our already huge military budget, as they continue drone warfare and military occupations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.”
The road to finding that voice and being able to discuss their trauma is often long and hard for war veterans, Messner notes. Many have to fight their way through societal expectations that men should deal with pain and traumatic experiences by maintaining a manly silence. Therapy helps some to open up — but for others it takes a failed suicide attempt.
Those who do find their voice often engage in helping other vets — a service to others, Messner says, that meshes with that personal healing and also with advocacy for peace.
While Messner says some might view them as weak, or as advocating weakness, he has found veterans who are peace activists to be among the strongest people he has ever met.
“They’re exhibiting a certain type of bravery that to me is exemplary and I think serves as an example of a redefinition of strength, that we can be strong in advocating for justice, peace and a world where nations treat each other as equals,” he said. “To me, that’s a new form of heroism.”