It’s Armistice Day. Click here for a Wilfred Owen retrospective. More here.
James Fallows has some observances on the day here.
Originally this was a moment for looking backwards, to honor those who had served in the Great War and mourn those who had died. Its retrospective purpose remains. But for Americans right now it should also be a moment to honor the men and women who continue to serve and sacrifice and be injured and die — and to reflect on the fact that, for the first time in our modern history, they do so with absolutely no shared sacrifice or service from the public at large. Everyone knows this and avoids thinking much about it. Today it’s worth at least remembering.
It’s also worth thinking about how warfare itself has changed. In 1918, several warring nations agreed that the war would stop on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. But it’s unlikely our current military actions will end with an armistice. Wars will just go on, and on, until changing circumstances cause people to lose interest.
For that reason, war can no longer be thought of as an extraordinary event of limited duration that will end on some day future generations will have to memorize for history tests. From now on, we must understand that when we choose to engage in a large military action there may not be an end to it for many years. Certainly, there can be exceptions to this. If a war has a narrow and sharply defined mission — running Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, for example — then a war might still be of limited duration. When the mission is more grandiose and less specific — ending evil, spreading democracy, making the world safe from terrorism — then don’t expect to live long enough to see the end of it. Unless, of course, we just stop fighting it.
And for that reason, “we’re at war” can no longer be an excuse for playing fast and loose with the Constitution. It was controversial enough when Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt assumed extraordinary “war powers” that would be relinquished when the wars ended. When President Bush expands the powers of the presidency, he is in effect changing the way powers are balanced and separated from now on. Because our wars will have no armistice, no formal conclusion dignified with treaties and ceremonies, war powers will not be relinquished unless some future President chooses to do so. Or, unless Congress and the Courts force the President to relinquish them.
On the other hand, without shared sacrifice on the part of civilians, war and the sacrifice of soldiers can too easily be put out of mind. For those not directly involved, perpetual war could become just another part of the constant drone of issues emanating from mass media. And that makes it too easy.
From an editorial in the Lufkin Daily News:
One in four of our nation’s homeless people is a veteran, according to a study released this past week, and soldiers returning from the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming destitute more often and more quickly than veterans of past wars. …
… Part of the problem, a big part, is that war has become so commonplace for our country. The wars we are fighting now have no end in sight, and the daily news has hardly changed since they began: U.S. soldiers are dying at a slow but steady rate. Most the country is against the war, and the absence of a military draft means the people who are serving are doing so by choice. That, unfortunately, makes it easier for us to disregard the sacrifices they are making.
Another issue is that, while local organizations (namely, the Angelina County Veterans Day Committee and local school districts) do a great job of putting together ceremonies to recognize our veterans, it’s like pulling teeth to get members of the public to attend them. Then there are the other 364 days of the year on which we think, and do, very little about veterans’ needs.
Taking care of returning veterans should be a high priority for government, not a job delegated to volunteers or Veterans Day committees. Veterans should not have to ask for charity.
See also Vietnam Memorial Turns 25.
Update: See also John Nichols.
Update 2: Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired), quotes Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions:
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy…all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
Commander Huber continues,
I have this little veterans’ memorial along the edge of my yard. It’s where I put in some new plants early in the fall, so they’d be established when winter came and then bloom when spring rolls around. Puttering around the garage while I was in the middle of this yard project, I found a miniature U.S. flag on a small stick, one of those things you see real estate agents plant a million of in everybody’s yard on the Fourth of July. I’d saved this one from the Fourth, for some reason. Anyway, there it was on a shelf in my garage, and I picked it up and took it out where I’d just put all the new plants and stuck it in the ground, where it has stayed 24/7 ever since.
I think of this little plot as my memorial to everyone I personally knew who died in uniform. None of them died in combat. Most of them died in “training accidents,” mainly aviation related, things like disappearing into the side of a mountain or flying to the bottom of the ocean.
I keep thinking someone who thinks he’s really, really patriotic will come along someday when I’m in the yard playing with my dogs or something and tell me how I’m not treating the flag properly, that I should know better than to leave it outside day and night, rain or shine, what with me being a veteran and all.
I can’t wait to see the look on that person’s face when I say what I have to say in reply to that. It should be pretty comical, the look on the face of that person who thinks he’s so all fired patriotic.
That person might look like he just heard the Voice of God.