What exactly do we celebrate on Veterans Day? To be sure, we mean to honor the brave men and women, living and dead, who have fought America’s battles, past and present. But honor them how, and for what? About these matters, we lack a clear national answer.
Part of the confusion is built into the history of the holiday. It was first celebrated as Armistice Day, commemorating the cessation of fighting between the Allies and Germany in World War I—at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. When, a year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first Armistice Day, he spoke of the “solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service” and the “gratitude for victory.” But because World War I had been regarded as the “war to end all wars,” Wilson’s reasons for esteeming the victory had everything to do with lasting peace: “the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” Armistice Day was a day that celebrated the pacifist and internationalist dreams of a nation—and a world—sickened by maiming and slaughter on a hitherto unimaginable scale. The dreams were not to be realized.
A brief four years later, Wilson, no longer president, gave a national radio address on the significance of Armistice Day, in which he deplored America’s failure to seize the opportunity that victory had provided: “The stimulating memories of that happy time of triumph are forever marred and embittered for us by the shameful fact that when victory was won—won be it remembered chiefly by the indomitable spirit and ungrudging sacrifices of our incomparable soldiers—we turned our backs upon our associates and refused to bear any responsible part in the administration of peace or the firm and permanent establishment of the results of war—won at so terrible a cost of life and treasure—and withdrew into a sullen and selfish isolation which is deeply ignoble because manifestly cowardly and dishonorable.” Wilson was mortified by America’s failure to pursue his programs for keeping the peace. Yet his argument implies something more general: that we gravely dishonor our soldiers if we reject or abandon the cause for which they fought and died—an issue that shadows our holiday today.
The pacifist reason for the holiday was still uppermost when—as it turned out, almost on the eve of World War II—Congress in May 1938 by statute made November 11 a legal federal holiday, a day to be dedicated to world peace and thereafter to be celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.” But after the hard-won victory over the Axis Powers in World War II and the successful battle to repel Communist aggression in Korea—the “good wars”—Congress in 1954, prodded by veterans organizations, changed the name of the holiday to “Veterans Day,” a day to honor American warriors of all wars, for their patriotism and the willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.
Yet our attitude toward our veterans and their service has not remained stable. Fifty years ago, in his proclamation of Veterans Day 1961, President Kennedy invited all citizens to observe Veterans Day in ceremonies “expressive of our people’s desire for peace and their gratitude to our veterans who have served and sacrificed to attain it.” Twenty-five years ago, proclaiming Veterans Day 1986, President Reagan spoke less of peace than of freedom and preserving our way of life: “Veterans Day gives all Americans a special opportunity to pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country. Their willingness to give freely and unselfishly of themselves, even their lives, in defense of our democratic principles has given our great country the security we enjoy today. From Valley Forge to Vietnam, through war and peace, valiant patriotic Americans have answered the call, serving with honor and fidelity.”
This year, President Obama’s proclamation struck an altogether different note, beginning with a call to honor our veterans and to commemorate the legacy they have upheld of “profound service and sacrifice in pursuit of a more perfect Union” (italics mine)—not usually thought to be the goal of the armed forces, whose efforts are directed against real foreign dangers, not putative domestic shortcomings. He praised them as exemplifying the fundamental American trait of doing our utmost “to make a difference in the lives of others”—a banality that does not begin to describe the heroic and extraordinary character of their service and its nation-preserving goals. He then spent much time praising their efforts—after their military service—to “safeguard the prosperity of our Nation in our neighborhoods, our businesses, and our homes. As teachers and engineers, doctors and parents, these patriots have made contributions to civilian life that serve as a testament to their dedication to the welfare of our country.” And although speaking of a debt of honor for their service, he defined that honor as “working tirelessly to give them the care, the benefits, and the opportunities they have earned”—implying that honor for heroic patriotic service means nothing if it cannot be cashed in for (admittedly fitting) tangible social benefits. Rather than dedicating ourselves to the cause for which many of them gave their last full measure of devotion, the president spoke of “rededicating ourselves to serving them as well as they have served the United States of America.” One wonders what Woodrow Wilson—or a soldier coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan—would make of President Obama’s call to “enlist our veterans in the greatest challenge we now face as a nation—creating opportunity and jobs in this country. . . .
The nation we need to build—and the nation that we will build—is our own.”
The president’s views and emphases, it is true, reflect the opinions of many of our fellow citizens, who are only too glad to be rid of a war that they either did not support in the first place or decided long ago was not worth the cost. About this, reasonable people may differ. But much more worrisome than the division about the current wars—and much more damaging to the proper celebration of this or any future Veterans Day—is the demographic and socio-cultural division between the less than 1 percent that does the fighting and the 99 percent that enjoy the benefits of peace and prosperity safeguarded by those who protect and serve. Not only do the 99 percent not serve; many among them, particularly among the privileged elite, do not personally know anyone who does. (The absence of ROTC on many elite college campuses contributes much to this divide.) And while veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan receive more respect and consideration from post-9/11 America than did veterans who returned from Vietnam to an ungrateful country, it remains to be seen whether we can properly honor their service.
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.