The recent Veterans Day got more media notice than usual as the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, its earlier form, created to commemorate the ending of World War One. That war was demoted to just another world war from the “Great War” when it turned out not to be the “war to end all wars.”
It is hard to find an account of WWI that doesn’t point out its most salient feature: the utter waste and purposelessness of it. 12 million lives thrown away. (Nothing, of course, to the 70-odd million lost in the war it failed to prevent.) Huge suffering from the most horrible weapons and methods of fighting (gas, flamethrowers, disgusting trench warfare) for , it would seem, nothing. Or certainly not enough.
And the ending to that war was the most tragic, disgraceful day of that disgraceful war. The newspaper articles told about deaths right up to and after the agreed-upon ending. The 10,000 or more deaths the final day were more than in all of WW2’s D-day invasion.
It’s a terrible thing for a young life to be lost in a war. Ultimate sacrifice indeed. But for that war to be widely considered, by many even at the time, useless, and eminently avoidable?
Writing after WW1, Winston Churchill wrote with irony about his early, pre-WW1 warrior years, in which he eagerly sought an opportunity to prove himself upon the glorious battlefield of a war, any war. It had been the last time, he and others thought, when when such a romancing of war was possible.
Armistice Day was in 1954 changed to Veterans Day, switching the emphasis from that terrible war to veterans of all wars, although perhaps most people at the time had in mind the victors of WW2, widely seen in contrast to WW1 as both necessary and of course successful. .
It’s good to see newspaper articles about the Armistice Day origins of Veterans Day. Unfortunately, they tell it as ancient history. But America’s wars from the Vietnam War on, while not of the same scale, have a lot in common with WW1: suspect raison d’etre (“domino theory,” “weapons of mass destruction,” etc), dubious goals, disapproved of at home at least for much of their duration, experienced as morally and psychologically damaging by many participants.
The desire to honor the service of veterans is completely understandable. But there is something crazy-making and morally confused in Veterans Day’s determination to honor and praise the warrior separate from the meaning of the war. It seems part of a post-Vietnam era effort to redeem the experience of those doing the dubious work of wars that most of us believe we shouldn’t be fighting.– to make participant-victims feel more like patriotic heroes.
Courage is exhibited on all sides of all wars, good or bad. But courage is not necessarily heroic. Heroism, according to Merriam-Webster, is courage “especially as exhibited in fulfilling a high purpose or attaining a noble end.” (911 first responders going into a doomed building to save lives comes to mind.) Heroism in this sense is not really possible in a morally compromised and unnecessary war.
The late John McCain seems an exception to this, his story of great courage under terrible circumstances made even more poignant as part of a war widely deemed not worthy of his sacrifice. It’s an exception that proves the rule. His experience was hardly typical of that war. There were many brave draftees and volunteers, but as we know from many firsthand accounts (and credible movies), the typical experience was hardly meaningful, let alone patriotically heroic. And not just because of the greeting they got on returning home.
We could do with a return to the sober spirit of the original Armistice Day as a day of reflection on peace and avoidance of wars not worthy of those who fight them.