Tuesday, November 11, 2014

It's Veterans Day...

"Veterans Day", by Tom Russell, performed by Johnny Cash,
 from the 1990 Album Boom Chicka Boom

It's Veterans Day.  November 11, derived from the ending (by armistice) of active hostilities during The Great War, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918 (although formally, the state of war did not end for various combatants until between 1919 and 1924).

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed 11/11 to be Armistice Day:
"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"
In 1938, Congress
... made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as "Armistice Day." Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I...
and in 1954
...after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the Nation’s history; after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word "Armistice" and inserting in its place the word "Veterans." With the approval of this legislation (Public Law 380) on June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.
Originally, Armistice Day was intended as a day for celebration and remembrance, with parades and public meetings.  Business would cease briefly at 11am.  By making Veterans Day a statutory holiday, Congress was more or less doubling up on Memorial Day (formerly known as Decoration Day) which had been instituted after the American Civil War.  The division of labour was essentially that Memorial Day was for veterans who had died, and Veterans Day was for all veterans.

In 1968, the US government attempted to "normalize" holiday celebration in order to create uniform three day weekends for federal employees, which resulted in several years of confusion until President Gerald Ford returned Veterans Day to November 11.

As a result, Veterans Day (unlike Memorial Day, Presidents Day, and Columbus Day -- and incidentally, my mother's birthday, which until 1971 was always Memorial Day) is again celebrated on 11 November, no matter what the day of the week.  Partially because of this peculiarity, and probably largely because of the Vietnam War, Veterans Day parades are much rarer than they used to be.

That's wrong.

Lionizing the military and declaring everybody who serves to be a hero isn't right, but ignoring the service and sacrifice of our veterans isn't right either.  Jim Wright says it much better than I can:
...I concur with the bare gist of Masciotra's basic premise: i.e. calling everybody in uniform a "hero" is nothing but shallow mindless patriotism and, worse, waters down the sacrifices of those shining few who truly ARE heroes. Putting us military folks up on a pedestal is wrongheaded and counterproductive and blinds you to the very real, very human, problems. Heroes can do no wrong, they never kill the wrong people by accident, or on purpose, they never commit rape or harass their fellows, heroes never break their oaths for a book deal, do they? Heroes don't get PTSD. Heroes don't wake up at night, the sheet soaked with sweat, the screams ringing in their ears. Heroes certainly don't need help or counselling or medical care after they leave the service. Heroes don't end up dirty and hungry and addicted and living on the street. Regular people do, but not heroes. 
The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us, me most definitely included, are NOT heroes. We are just ... people. We were just soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, trying to do our duty, doing the best we could with what we had under difficult conditions.
So, it's Veterans Day.  Do something nice for a veteran, if you can -- and do it some other day if you can't do it today.  At least be conscious that there are nearly 20 million Americans who signed up to go into harms way for the rest of us.  Try to be worthy of that.

And make sure that you, and your children if you have any, make it, at least once, to Arlington National Cemetery, or Colville-sur-Mer, so that you (and they) remember what war costs.

"Stones", Arlington National Cemetery,
by Evan Robinson