Trigger Warning: Cynicism and curmudgeonliness lie ahead. Proceed at your own risk.
America has had a troubled history with its veterans. Much of it grows out of our British heritage where a standing army was seen as a instrument of oppression. It is no accident that our own US Constitution (Article I, Section 8) says:
To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
This comes directly from the British Mutiny Act, the annual vehicle used by the Parliament to fund the British army. In the late 17th century, the English poet, Francis Quarles, penned this bit of doggerel that has survived through the ages in various forms.
Our God and Souldiers we alike adore,
Ev’n at the Brink of danger; not before:
After deliverance, both alike required;
Our God’s forgotten, and our Souldiers slighted.
One might say that Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy Atkins, is an updated and extended version of this.
While veterans were lauded, for most of our history they were either tossed aside once the fighting was done (the treatment of veterans of the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War I) or, if they served in peacetime, were treated with contempt. Sort of an “is that all you did with your life” attitude that reminds one of the Chinese aphorism, “Just as you do not use good iron to make nails, you do not use good men to make soldiers.”
The American experience, small though it was, in that vast abattoir that was the World War I, had a profound effect on the national psyche:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Armistice Day was created a federal holiday on June 4, 1926.
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
It wasn’t until the the aftermath World War II and the Korean War and the advent of a seemingly perpetual peacetime draft that the perspective on veterans changed. What had once been something the downtrodden and quixotic did for the most part, though interspersed with those periods of national stress that made patriotism something people acted up rather than simply talked about, became a virtual rite of passage for adult males. On June 1, 1954, Armistice Day was officially renamed Veterans Day.
With the end of Vietnam, we went back to our happy equilibrium. Veterans were few and mostly out of sight. Over time, it became safe for ROTC cadets to wear their uniforms on college campuses without fear of assault or insult in public spaces or retaliation by professors in class.
Now it seems that the pendulum is swinging in a new, and to me, alarming direction. We are on the point of fetishizing veterans in the abstract while cheerfully keeping the VA engorged with cash even as they let 300,000 American veterans die while awaiting care. The incomprehensible “thank you for your service,” (wait, wait, didn’t I volunteer for this?) which is sort of the “have a nice day” of the post 9/11 world, is cheaply bought grace usually mouthed by people who are making themselves feel good. Watching the Democrats try to turn veterans into just another whiny, spoiled special interest group on the make for handouts and preferences just turns my stomach.
Do veterans need a holiday in their honor? I don’t know. It made sense when Eisenhower did it because a large number of Americans were veterans and the overwhelming majority of those were not veterans by choice. Now, we veterans are becoming a rarity. Keep in mind that the Army that fought for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan was smaller than the Army I served in during the Cold War, and as that cohort of WWII veterans join The Great Majority. Veterans Day observances are rarer. A large number of school districts do not recognize Veterans Day as a holiday (mine doesn’t). This makes parades problematic and if we aren’t teaching our children “to pay appropriate homage” to veterans, then the purpose is definitely lost.
More to the point, honoring veterans, particularly those who have suffered injuries by virtue of their service should be a civic duty. Donate to a reputable veterans charity. Support a veterans service organization. Set a VA bureaucrat on fire and chase them through the street (that was a joke, I’m told this is illegal in some jurisdictions). And by all means care about the families of those who are pre-veterans, those serving on active duty. Deployments are stressful on families, particularly young families, and one thing the military does well is produce young families.
Perhaps the correct thing to return to Armistice Day. The connection is not lost. The VFW still raises money by getting donations for “buddy poppies.” Return to celebrating that eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 when for a short while we were just too tired to kill one another.
The author was a career US Army airborne and infantry officer. He served in command and staff positions in the United States and Germany and had the privilege of commanding two infantry companies. He is a veteran of bar fights on three continents and his positive can-do attitude got him threatened with relief on two occasions… but he brown-nosed his way out of those predicaments. Don’t tell him “thank you for your service,” show real gratitude by springing for some good bourbon.