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by Jim Abrahamson

The author, a contributing editor of this journal, reminds us of the importance of Veterans Day in an address he delivered to a North Carolina retirement community earlier this month.– Ed.

An event of Eleven November 1918, the reason for today’s gathering, has proven to be a national holiday with an identity crisis. Within a few decades of its establishment the original clarity regarding its name, what it memorialized, and whom it intended to honor became very unclear on all accounts.

People of our age generally know that what we now call Veterans Day has something to do with the First World War—originally the Great War. The 11 November date of the holiday marks not the June 1919 peace treaty but the signing of the Armistice that ended armed conflict at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

The United Kingdom, which had suffered nearly one million deaths during the war, had much to remember and began honoring its war dead on Remembrance Day. On 11 November 1919, Britain’s King George approved what became known as the Great Silence—a period of two minutes in which everything and everybody came to a halt out of respect for those who died in the war. From Britain—and a poem, In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian military physician John McCrae—came another early and continuing 11 November tradition, the wearing of poppies to mark the day and honor those who died.

In 1919 Americans too were clear about the holiday’s purpose, President Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day should be filled with “solemn pride in the heroism of [the 116,000 Americans] who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” He called for parades, public meetings, prayers of thanksgiving, and—like the British—a brief 11 am suspension of activity.

Within twenty years Armistice Day began to lose focus. A 1938 Act of Congress described 11 November as a day dedicated to world peace even as the new act retained the day’s original name. By 1954, we had experienced little world peace and two more wars—a Second World War and Korea—whose dead seemingly required some recognition. In response President Eisenhower issued the first Veterans Day Proclamation calling upon Americans to honor veterans of all wars and not simply those who had died.

Further muddying the holiday’s meaning and undermining the day’s significance, the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 created three-day weekends by moving four legal holidays—Veterans Day among them—to the nearest Monday. At that point the day’s stated purposed moved from honoring those who had served in the armed forces to enjoying travel, recreation, and cultural activities—maybe shopping at the nearest mall? —all having little to do with the original purpose of Armistice Day or the renamed Veterans Day.

By 1975 and the end of another war, President Ford elected to return the observance of Veterans Day to 11 November and reinstate the focus on those who served in the armed forces—their “patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good”—though including nothing specific about honoring those whose sacrifice was their very life.

Whether by conscious intention or not, the meaning of another holiday—Memorial Day—also evolved and lost focus. Known as Decoration Day in 1868, when General John Logan in his capacity as commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, called upon citizens to bring flowers—to decorate—the graves of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. Logan and his colleague General John Murray selected 30 May because that day was the anniversary of no Civil War battle. By 1890 every northern state had begun to commemorate the holiday as Memorial Day, a term first used in 1882, but retained its focus on those who had given their lives in the Civil War. By then southern states too had begun to celebrate the holiday, and in 1913 veterans of the Confederate and Union armies gathered at Gettysburg on the 50th anniversary of the war’s bloodiest battle with speeches that stressed “national unity and good will.”

At my boyhood home in Illinois, the holiday was still informally known as Decoration Day, but it called for decoration of all graves, whether or not they contained war dead or even military veterans. Our national Memorial Day Concert on the west lawn of the Capitol, however, retains the focus on the men and women who gave their lives in all American wars and not simply the Civil War.

How did this confusion and drift turn out? We now have a Civil War holiday—Memorial Day, formerly Decoration Day—to honor the dead of all wars and a First World War holiday—Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day—to honor all who have served in the armed forces. Though we have somewhat lost sight of each day’s founding events, maybe that is a happy compromise that honors, on the one had, those who died in war and, on the other, all those who served, whether they experienced combat or not.

So, how many do we honor today? In November 2008 the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that almost 42 million Americans have worn their nation’s uniform during one of its wars, which is a good approximation of the total number of veterans who served between 1776 and the present. Of those, nearly 1 million 200 thousand died during their service—nearly half of the total deaths occurring during the Civil War alone—but 24 million veterans are still alive today.

Carolina Meadows, despite its small population, has a goodly number of those living veterans—151 according to the latest Resident Life survey. Most—40%—served in the Army. The Navy—including our two Marines—comes second with 38% of the total, and the Army Air Corps and US Air Force have 19%. Carolina Meadows also has one veteran of the Coast Guard, and three veterans who served with an allied nation. Among our village’s veterans are ten women, most having served with the Navy.

We owe those veterans, here and elsewhere, the living and the dead, more than can ever be repaid. In the 18th century, they won our nation’s freedom in a war with the world’s greatest power and maintained it in a second conflict four decades later. They supported national policies that kept us free when three great European powers—England, France, and Spain—had designs on the entire North American Continent. When, in 1860, we were threatened with division, our veterans restored our nation’s unity. In two world wars they maintained our independence against the efforts of expansionist imperial powers, and during the Cold War they contained a new empire and fought to keep smaller nations free. Though the conflict in Iraq seems to be winding down, our veterans are still waging an armed struggle in Afghanistan and in various other places where Islamists use violence to advance their efforts to defeat the West and impose a religious totalitarianism. More veterans with active combat service may one day move to Carolina Meadows, and at least one Vietnam veteran has already arrived.

How can we best honor them, those in our midst and others who have served as well as those now on active duty?

• Certainly by ceremonies such as this one, though they have become distressingly rare even in our present time of war.
• By offering an expression of our thanks whenever we encounter young men and women in uniform. Though we have fewer than a million and a half people on active duty and an equal number in the reserves, their individual excellence and dedication compensate for their small numbers. Our armed forces have often been larger, but never of better individual quality than those now serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other spots. Many of those who now serve have experienced multiple tours of duty in those places, and their total time in active, fierce combat matches what we asked of our veterans of previous wars. When possible we can show our respect and gratitude for their sacrifices—whatever we may think of any administration’s military policy.
• We can also honor our veterans by reminding our members of Congress that it must keep the promises they made when recruiting our volunteer armed forces. It asked young men and women to sigh a blank check payable to the government, and they and their families made the resulting sacrifices. We must not now allow our government to renege on its promises—even as some civilians in the Defense Department already discuss how to cut the costs of those commitments.
• Nor should we forget the needs of our soldiers’ families, who live in fear that a military staff car might one day arrive at their door with the dreadful news of the death of a husband, wife, child, or parent. Even should that never occur, those families are stressed by carrying the load previously borne by the absent member.
• We should not assume that the burdens of service are borne equally by all parts of American society. At the present, most of our warriors come from the South and the Mountain West. Our secretary of defense has also recently lamented that so few of our elite universities in other parts of the country have Reserve Officer Training programs. If your alma mater does not, you might invite its president to reconsider. Students often favor ROTC’s return. It is faculties that object.
• We can assist those who serve our future veterans in a number of very personal ways: The USO at the RDU airport offers food, drinks, and travel assistance to troops moving between the airport, bases near Fayetteville, the coast, and elsewhere in the state as well as to and from homes scattered about North Carolina. The USO needs funds and volunteers to keep its service alive. Soldiers’ Angels, the national USO, military exchanges, and others enable us to purchase and send care packages and phone calling cards that make their way to soldiers overseas, enabling them to know we care and to keep them in touch with their families. The Wounded Warrior Project and Homes for Our Troops ease the transition of the seriously wounded into civil society, the latter by building homes especially adapted for disabled veterans.

There are, therefore, many ways in which we can honor our veterans and show our appreciation for their sacrifices. Let Veterans Day be a reminder of things that can be done throughout the year. As Indiana Congressman Mike Spence recently observed: “We owe a debt to those who came before, who did great things, and suffered more than we suffer, and gave more than we give, and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for us, whom they did not know . . . So we must be faithful in our time as they were in theirs.”

James L. Abrahamson
James L. Abrahamson

Dr. James L. Abrahamson is a retired army colonel who previously taught history and government at the United States Military Academy, the Army War College, and Campbell University. He is the author of works on military reform, the impact of war on society, and the coming of the Civil War.


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