I can’t ignore Veterans Day, or Armistice Day or Remembrance Day as it’s known in other countries. Today is one of a very few days set aside explicitly to honor courage.
The day’s original purpose was to commemorate the end of the First World War, or the Great War as it was called before World War II eclipsed it, on the 11th of November, 1918. It was the biggest, most brutal war the world had ever seen, ending the lives of twenty to thirty million people and laying waste to a huge swath of western Europe. Small wonder the combatants felt the need to commemorate its end in the hope nothing like it would ever happen again.
Of course, the fact that we now refer to that conflict as the First World War tells us that hope was in vain. But we still reserve November 11th as a holiday.
Of course we do. That war gave us Armistice Day, then Veterans Day; the Civil War gave us Memorial Day, the day we remember our war dead. Both wars were horrific and helped define us as a nation. What’s surprising is not that we commemorate these days–it’s that V-E day or V-J day (Victory in Europe and Victory in Japan, respectively) from World War II have not become something similar.
But I’m more interested in talking about the meaning of Veterans Day than its historical roots. Today is the day we recognize those who have given military service to our country, specifically those still living and particularly those who have fought in our wars. Today is the day we honor their courage.
Because it takes courage to join an organization you know will treat you harshly. It takes courage to leave your home and travel to a place you’ve never been, maybe never even thought about visiting. It takes courage to leave your family, knowing you are in the prime of life and they may have a hard time without you there to take care of them. Every soldier, marine, sailor, and airman shares the courage to deal with each of these–before he or she ever hears a shot fired in anger. Add to these that some of the people in the place you’re visiting will probably try to kill you, and (no less scary for most of us) it’s your job to kill them first, and the simple act of going to war becomes a courageous act indeed. And that’s before you even have a chance to make a hero of yourself on the battlefield.
I say this not to distract attention from real heroes, those whose acts of courage set them apart from the rest who deploy and do their duty. I say it because it’s easy to forget those who served, those who went and did their duty and did not distinguish themselves on the battlefield, in the shadow of those who did.
Today, let’s not forget.