Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

Here in the United States we have a pair of holidays for honoring the members of our military; Memorial Day in May, and Veterans Day in November (this very day!). If you're like me, preternaturally obsessed with classification and differentiation, you may note that there isn't a whole lot of difference between the two in terms of their intentions; however, that hasn't stopped Americans from making a sort of unofficial distinction. Memorial Day is, of course, enshrined as the unofficial start of summer, bringing beach-going and barbecues into the mix for a more upbeat take on things. Veterans Day, however, is much more solemn affair, a fact a I attribute partly to its name: while "Memorial Day" is vague in its subject, "Veterans Day" puts a face on the date, the face of the nearest neighbor, family member, or friend who put his or her energy in the service of the United States in the most risky, dangerous way.

I believe that it's very right that Veterans Day holds this distinction, in part because it also represents a day that most Americans have probably forgotten about; the Armistice of November 11th, 1918, which brought an end to World War I. That war, which ended ninety one years ago today, was so heinously destructive, and so inane in its cause and origins, that the very fact that it was waged must be considered one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed, and the entire political leadership of the western world bears the guilt for it. The "silver-lining" hopes that it would be The War to End All Wars turned out to be hopes and nothing more, and the treaty of Versailles ended up doing much more harm than good. But the Armistice, at least, represented a momentary return to sanity, when the soldiers who bled would finally be met with some measure of relief.

November 11th was celebrated in America as Armistice Day until 1954, when the powers that be saw fit to honor the veterans of all wars, principally by changing the holiday's name. The decision was fair and inclusive, but it has contributed to the regrettable amnesia that has crept over our national recollection of World War I. There is only one American veteran of that war who is still alive today, Frank Buckles, who is one hundred and six years old. When he is gone, the war, and the Armistice, will belong entirely to history, along with the experiences of all the soldiers who endured machine guns and mustard gas, and clung to survival in muddy trenches.

It was World War I that changed the western consciousness toward war itself, chastising traditional notions of glorious battle with the abject horror of blood and pain. The lessons of the 20th Century have taught us, again and again, that to be an American soldier in a time of war is to endure that horror, to volunteer to face it and, with what strength they have, to overcome it. To be a soldier is a deadly serious profession, and to be a veteran is rightly a position of great honor.

It is right that the day we honor veterans should be November 11th, because soldiers of any nation have seldom endured worse than they did in the Great War. As for the soldiers who fought in that war, they were never better served by their leaders than they were on the day they were told that they need endure no more of it.

Happy Veterans Day, veterans. May you receive all that you deserve.

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