Armistice Day: Hoping in silence - Daniel Silliman

"It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God." -- Kurt Vonnegut, on the scaredness of Armistice Day.

The end of the Vietnam War had the sound of helicopters, lifting off of a roof in Saigon. With rotars pumping air down on the city. The end of World War II sounded like the music at the closing of "Saving Private Ryan" -- the somber, moving, secular alter call at the graves in Arlington, Va.

At the end of the initial Afghan invasion, men cheered the downfall of the Taliban and publically shaved their beards, and I thought that sound would go down in the history of the sound of wars ending. Of course, it wasn't over. Now I don't know how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will end, and I can't even imagine what it will sound like.

The end of the first World War, the Great War, at least according to writer and veteran Kurt Vonnegut, sounded like silence. It was, traditionally, remembered that way. With a minute of silence on the anniversary of that silence, a moment to remember and reflect.

Given this country's ongoing culture wars, I had always thought the "moment of silence" came as a secular answer to public prayer. I thought it was a way that liberals could hold a public, religious-style rememberance without respecting a particular religion, without forcing out the non-Christians and the non-religious. I thought it was something that happened more recently, but since this country was as Christian as it will ever be in 1918, now I don't know that the "moment of silence" is really a battle in the culture wars at all.

Even when I'm not sure where I come down, between liberals and conservatives, the moment of silence makes me nervous. I stand there, head down, eyes trying to look around, hearing people clear their throats and shift in place. All I can think is, "When is someone going to say something? How long is this going to last? Exactly how long is a moment, anyway?"

My thoughts started to change, though, when I watched a news anchor talk his way through a moment of silence meant to memorialize those who died during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The cameras were panning over crowds in New York and everyone, everywhere, was silent -- except for the news anchor. He kept talking. I understand there's a fear of "dead air," but still, it was ridiculous. He kept saying, "We're having a moment of silence for the victims. Everyone's silent now. It's really moving. We're having a moment of silence now."

My thoughts on silence changed, too, the more I grew and the more I learned about how impossible it is to say anything about tragedy. My Christian training would tell me to turn to God, in that moment, and say a prayer. The older I get, though, the deeper I feel those tragedies go, and the less I have to say to God about the deaths of thousands, the deaths of individuals and the colossally messed-up state of the world.

What I have to say seems to mostly take the form of a question mark, or maybe the words of the dying Jesus, "Why hast thou forsaken us?"

A conservative Chrsitian writer I know commented, on September 11, this year, that the whole moment of silence thing seems to imply that God is absent. It is, he said, like God has been replaced with a big, gapping void. Instead of Jesus, he wrote, we're just left with this vapid, undefined "moment."

In that moment, though, I now think I'm offering up a silence. I'm saying I don't know what to say about death and devestation. I don't know what to say and so I wait, emptily, giving God a chance to speak. I'm waiting, hoping hope will interrupt this pause. In that awkward pause, that wispy moment, I'm hoping to hear the peace that soldiers thought was a divine voice, at 11:11 a.m., on Nov. 11, 1918.

Daniel Silliman covers crime and courts for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.