Today is Veterans Day here in the United States.
Today is the day we set aside to honor those who go to war on our behalf – the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who put their lives on the line every day so that we can go about our lives without having to do so. Not all of them see combat, but they all take that chance when they sign up. They train for it. They expect it. And they’re very good at it.
If there is anyone who deserves a day of honor, it is the people who go to war. Stand up a little straighter when you see a veteran today, because they deserve that respect from you.
But it didn’t used to be Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day.
The reason this day happens when it does is because it originally commemorated the end of World War I, when at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the big guns finally fell silent along the Western Front and the grinding war of attrition that was The Great War finally came to a halt. It didn’t end in a peace treaty, and for that the world would ultimately pay with a repeat performance – bigger, badder and more deadly – a generation later. It ended, instead, with an armistice. A simple agreement that enough was enough, that the shooting had to stop, and that the rest could be worked out later.
Armistice Day doesn’t celebrate the people who go to war. It celebrates the people who come home from war.
There is a difference.
It didn’t become Veterans Day until after World War II. And World War II was The Good War, at least to the extent that any war – particularly one that consumed lives and treasure at the rate World War II did – can be considered good. Really, in many ways it spins out as a morality play.
There were clear-cut good guys – the Americans, of course, since this is an American story and we are always the heroes of our own stories, plus the “plucky” British, the “gallant” French, and even the “stalwart” Soviets who bore the brunt of the vast majority of the combat, a fact Americans tended to forget as soon as the Cold War started.
There were clear-cut bad guys – it takes very little imaginative effort to see the Nazis and the militarist leaders of Japan as the embodiments of evil.
There was even a clown, as all morality plays are required to have – Mussolini, the prancing fool who probably cost the Axis more in remediation efforts than he brought to the table
And as with all good morality plays, there was a clear-cut resolution. The good guys won – thoroughly, convincingly, totally. The situation on the ground changed dramatically from what it had been before the war. Britain, France and the Soviet Union remained unconquered. The Nazis were destroyed. Germany and Japan were rebuilt to become vibrant democracies and upstanding members of the international community. In the United States the Great Depression ended, the Baby Boom started, and American power waxed ascendant. The war, in other words, made a difference – all that sacrifice, all that blood, all that destruction had been for Something.
That’s the sort of thing people like to celebrate. And so – Veterans Day. A day put aside to honor those who went to war and made this happen.
But World War I was not like that.
World War I was a catastrophic war in many ways. It was the bloodiest war in history up to that point. At least on the Western Front, where American forces would join the fight in 1917, it was a war defined by trench warfare – a particularly brutal kind of war, with opposing sides often mere yards apart, separated by barbed wire, machine-gun fire, and the bodies of the slain. It was an industrial war, where individual heroism counted for almost nothing and what mattered was equipment, manpower, and a willingness to sacrifice both until one side or the other ran out – once you get to the point where both sides realize they can’t break the trenches, that’s more or less the strategy they come up with. And perhaps most crushingly, it was a war that changed almost nothing, and what it did change didn’t change for the better by anyone’s account.
There were no clear-cut good guys or bad guys. There wasn’t even a clown.
There was no clear-cut resolution. There was an armistice – a cease-fire. There were consequences that would follow, of course, but those were separate. There was no real resolution.
The war had begun with an almost surreal sense of joy among its major combatants, that something was being done, that this would be a great and glorious campaign, and that it would be over by Christmas. Four years later, people looked up from the smoking ruins of their civilization and asked themselves why – what had been accomplished by all that?
And they found no answers. They found only relief that the pointless butchery had ended, and at last everyone could go home if they had a home left to go to. It hadn't been for Something. It had all been for Nothing.
Thus, Armistice Day – a day to celebrate not those who went to war, but those who came home.
It’s a quieter holiday, a little more thoughtful, a lot less celebratory, and I always regret that it got absorbed by Veterans Day.
Maybe we should have both.