Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Veterans Day: authentically honoring all those who serve

Every year on November 11, America celebrates Veterans Day. The day was originally Armistice Day in commemoration of the 1918 Armistice signed between World War I allies and Germany, an agreement to end hostilities on the Western Front. It is the official date marking the end of that war, even though hostilities continued elsewhere. It technically ended in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles.

In many countries, Armistice Day is a national holiday, a holiday to commemorate those killed in war. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law a bill that officially changed America’s Armistice Day to Veterans Day to commemorate all who have served.

A day to celebrate the service of all veterans makes sense. America already has Memorial Day on which we honor those warriors whose lives were taken as a result of America’s call to war. Americans should honor those who have served, for we are responsible for putting them in any situation that is a result of their service.

However, America’s Veterans Day perspective, as with Memorial Day, seems to be focused on the glory and heroics of war as opposed to simply honoring those who have served, or, honoring those who have lost their lives in our wars. Americans seem to believe that “without a military we would not have a country,” which implies a military at war, and without our wars we would not have a country. The fact is that when America engages in war it devastates families, impedes our freedom, and it puts a demand for spending on war, rather than on America’s demanding domestic and social needs. The fact is that our wars are a hindrance to America’s true potential.

From the founding of our nation, America has continued to wage war. And we are now in the longest war in our country’s history. World history is replete with quotations articulating the cruelty of war, of its catastrophic effects, and a yearning for peace. Highly regarded scientist, authors, military and political leaders, including Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, General Robert E. Lee, General Omar Bradley, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, third president of the United States, who believed that a large military establishment would both increase the nation's debt and threaten American liberty, have made these declarations, and yet we have not attained peace.

Americans and politicians are caught up in the ubiquitous catchphrase, “support our troops.” To most Americans “support our troops” means support for the war effort, rah-rah-rah and a high-five of encouragement to keep on killing and dying, making sure they have the appropriate killing tools and self-protection so that they are not killed, sending them cookies/toiletries, or slapping a “support our troops” bumper sticker on the car. It rarely means putting the pressure on our government to bring them home and out of harm’s way, or taking steps to prevent them from going to war in the first place.

As we have discovered in the cases of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch, the Defense Department does not always honor its veterans; it uses them, and I submit that many Americans do as well.

So, it’s important to understand that there are two separate issues to be considered when celebrating Armistice Day. The first is to honor all of those who have served America on our behalf. The second is to sever any perceived relationship between this appreciation and wars that dishonor their service. It is imperative that we honor those who serve but not worship the warrior.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy succinctly summed it up: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

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