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The Significance of Veterans Day

12:00 AM, Nov 11, 2011 • By LEON R. KASS
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The absence of conscription and the sharp military-civilian division within our population means among other things that the many—and I am one of them—must overcome obstacles even to understand the service of the few. We are often loath to see any need for fighting wars. We are made uncomfortable by talk of warriors or heroes, and even with “the military” or “armed forces” (we prefer “armed services” or “uniformed services”). We prefer the language of “servicemen and servicewomen,” eliding the difference between the service of soldiers and sailors and the service of social workers and teachers. We like the role-blurring euphemism “those who wear the uniform” or “those in harm’s way,” not owning up to the weapons that go with these uniforms, the special nature of the harms, and the unique service to the nation that voluntarily and knowingly faces death in battle, and that accepts not only the risks to life and limb but also the soul-transforming burden of taking up arms and killing other human beings. We deal with our guilty consciences and our fears by claiming to support our troops with a call to bring them home, without for a moment sensing that we are patronizing them by rejecting their mission and their cause as they have willingly and knowingly embraced them. Like it or not, it is we—through our elected representatives—who have sent them to fight on our behalf. So the least we can do is to try to honor their service as they see their appointed service: they are standing guard, and pursuing our enemies, and braving danger to fulfill their sworn duty to protect us and our American way of life. No amount of medical care or scholarship aid or GI benefits can compensate these men and women for our failure to honor them for that singular, remarkable, and, yes, heroic service.

And no amount of compassionate aftercare can undo the dishonor we do to our veterans when we look upon the wounded and the fallen among them as “victims.”

On this point, and much else, we should revisit a remarkable Veterans Day speech, delivered last year, by Marine Lieutenant General John F. Kelly to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis:

Those with less of a sense of service to the nation never understand it when men and women of character step forward to look danger and adversity straight in the eye, refusing to blink, or give ground, even to their own deaths. The protected can’t begin to understand the price paid so they and their families can sleep safe and free at night. No, they are not victims, but are warriors, your warriors, and warriors are never victims, regardless of how and where they fall. Death, or fear of death, has no power over them. Their paths are paved by sacrifice, sacrifices they gladly make for you.

In these important respects at least, these warrior men and women are our superiors. We can honor them properly only by recognizing that fact and by not flattening or disguising their excellence in order to feel better about ourselves.

Leon R. Kass is the Madden-Jewett Scholar at AEI and co-editor (with Amy Kass and Diana Schaub) of What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song

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