It was easy enough to understand at its birth, more so in many ways than the war that made it necessary. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns finally fell silent. Nine and a half million human beings had perished but, finally, no more did the great guns tear at the earth to tear at flesh.
The politicians talked of this war, known then as “the Great War” as the war to end all wars. Officially proclaimed Armistice Day in 1919 (Remembrance Day in other nations), it celebrated an end to war while honoring those who fell as well as those who survived the carnage. In 1954, Congress at the urging of then President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the name to Veterans Day to honor not just Great War veterans but all veterans.
In the 98 years since the holiday’s beginnings, the hopes of people that wars would be no more has proven beyond our grasp or an illusion not possible given out natures. In the United States, thanks at least in part to the all-volunteer makeup of our armed forces, those who serve do so with little fanfare. I was honored to have once taught men and women in uniform at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. We Americans are a most fortunate nation. Nowhere in this society will you find a more dedicated, self-sacrificing group of men and women.
They are at first glance much like the rest of America. They celebrate the birth of their children and delight in seeing them grow up. There are soccer matches and baseball games to go to, birthday parties to plan, Christmas present to buy. There is a celebration of life as gift. This is life as most of us outside of a uniform would know it. What we often do not see is their sense of time. Their world includes something ours does not.
On a nearly every-other-year basis, the needs of the nation will send them back to Afghanistan, Iraq, or some other place in harms way. Some of them have seen six and even seven combat tours since 2001. Do you remember the opening scene of the movie “Saving Private Ryan?” Do you remember the opening scenes of landing craft bouncing through the surf toward awaiting German guns that fateful day in June 1944? The days that followed the landings at Normandy were difficult and bloody, but 10 months after those landings, Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich was in ruins with the Japanese Empire soon to follow.
The long war that officially began with the falling of the World Trade Center towers in 2001 is now in its 16th year and shows no sign of being over. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who go in harms way have done so many times. Few of them can say any longer that they have not lost friends and comrades IEDs, snipers, mortar, and rockets. They know the losses far more intensely than most of us. They also know each time they have to go the faces of their children and spouses. There is resolution. Families know the drill, know there will be days of uncertainty and fear ahead. But they know that mom or dad will go as their orders direct.
So what does one say to a veteran? To those who have served, a thank you will suffice. Sometimes an understanding if we are unfortunate enough to keep our ghosts from those days of fear and fire.
To those who continue to serve, your appreciation is much needed.
And finally, we would ask that if it becomes our time to pass this world, that those we loved be taken into your prayers as well as into your arms, that you might dry their tears and comfort them. Perhaps, someday, there truly will come a day when a day to honor those who serve in wars will truly be unnecessary.
Sadly, the guns are no longer silent and peace still escapes us.
Joseph R. Fischer, LTC, Special Forces (retired), is a retired Professor at the Department of Military History, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.