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What Veterans Day Means

This Thing We Call Veterans Day, and Why the Nation Responds with Confusion

Veterans Day. Americans are more confused about it than any other holiday. Is it supposed to be festive or somber? Is it about history or about people and their contributions and the unmet needs they have as a product of having served?

About all that's clear is that we set the day aside to pay homage to the men and women who have worn the military uniforms of the United States, we call it a holiday, and we take the day off.

Memorial Day at the end of May seems more clear: it's how we kick-off summer with a big three-day weekend. We know that it's more than that, but don't confuse us. Two holidays, the other being Veterans Day every November, have historical roots very different from modern sensibilities. Since most people lack even a superficial understanding of the history, we'll look at the nature and imparted meaning of Veterans Day, and why we don't quite know how to react to it.

It's Not Memorial Day

First, it shouldn't be mixed up with Memorial Day, which originally honored Civil War dead on the Union side; that day is still supposed to be somber, or at least reflective, honoring all those who wore the uniform and died in it or after having worn it.

There's also the somewhat obscure Armed Forces Day, the Saturday of the weekend -- sometimes two weekends -- before Memorial Day. That day is for the people who are alive and currently wearing a military uniform. It doubles as the day for the military to show off its latest high-tech toys to the public. It is, after all, the military's own non-holiday-holiday, proclaimed by Harry Truman when he consolidated the separate fiefdoms of the War Department and the Navy Department into what became the Department of Defense.

But it isn't just this multiplicity of "military days" that's confusing. Fact is, that's the least of it.

There is a military culture, and it manifests many different ways. Those serving or who have served in the military of any nation often speak of the tradition of their family, or their unit. That's true worldwide, past and present. Esprit de corps has a lot to do with what military people call unit cohesion. It's even expected by and from everyone in any given unit, or aboard a ship, or the crew of an aircraft. It works on small and large scales.

After the Ft. Hood shootings, we heard a lot about "the Army Family" rallying to help victims. Go to Camp LeJeune or Camp Pendleton and you'll hear about "the Marine Corps Family" looking out for kids and spouses while a Marine is on a third or fifth deployment to Afghanistan. Same with "the Navy Family" when ships are at sea. It isn't all wives left behind as it used to be. Women are now in critical roles, so moms must leave their kids, too. There is real need for support, and the military has a long tradition that's been adapted to meeting changing needs.

Whether you're a gung-ho, hoo-rah, squared-away Marine or you determine precisely where a thousand-foot-long aircraft carrier will go, or you pilot a stealth aircraft, the military is a true meritocracy where what you can do is what matters.

In a very real sense, the military is farther in the lead with women in vital jobs than the rest of American society. There is no issue of equal pay for equal work in the military. Whether you're a gung-ho, hoo-rah, squared-away Marine or you determine precisely where a thousand-foot-long aircraft carrier will go, or you pilot a stealth aircraft, the military is a true meritocracy where what you can do is what matters. And that forms the basis for the respect you receive. That's a cornerstone of today's military, every bit as much as horsemanship or swordsmanship or handling sails was two hundred years ago.

Esprit de corps is complex, from fancy unit patches on your shoulder to esoteric ribbons that show where you've been to "challenge coins" carried in your pocket that prove participation in something the history books will never cover. Those of us outside, looking in, often do not see how much it transcends the high school sports teams that prepare young people for it.

What Vietnam Taught Us

We'll offer a quick point about that to illustrate its importance.

The '60s-'70s antiwar movement was one thing, but not the only thing. The military itself was finally ready to abandon Vietnam when collapse of the internal bonds of martial culture threatened to infect and undermine military discipline elsewhere. Commanders were not simply concerned by "fragging" attacks against officers by troops in Vietnam. The command structure came to be terrified by what it represented. Especially in Europe, where any sign of weakness was thought to be an invitation for Soviet tanks to roll into West Germany from the Eastern Bloc.

Thus, the desire of individual troops to "get out of there alive" came to be mirrored by senior commanders, who wanted their military readiness back. Some architects of the all-volunteer military admit that their goal was to replace the culture of the draft with a professional military culture, and purging the Vietnam-era draftees was essential to achieving that.

It took decades for many Americans to realize that those who had been sent to Vietnam and the enlarged conflicts in Southeast Asia came home feeling unwanted by the military as well as by the larger society who opposed the war.

It took decades for many Americans to realize that those who had been sent to Vietnam and the enlarged conflicts in Southeast Asia came home feeling unwanted by the military as well as by the larger society who opposed the war. They were robbed of their esprit de corps, something you do not do in military culture. That was a factor in the alienation so many if them felt. It took years for America to get over its love-hate relationship with these veterans, and many Vietnam vets still haven't sorted it out.

And everything affects everything else. World War II veterans have always been held in universal esteem, acclaimed as "the Greatest Generation." Yet Vietnam vets got a memorial on the National Mall in the nation's capital decades before America's rapidly dwindling veterans of history's biggest war finally received a monument to what they did.

National guilt? Of course. Still, the Vietnam memorial is a giant black scar in the landscape that overwhelms you with names of all the Americans who died for -- what?

The entire Vietnam experience, including the memorial to it, first with just "The Wall," then with added statues of combat soldiers, then with nurses, showed by its very incremental, incongruous, and somewhat contradictory nature how much it effected the national psyche.

Vietnam affected us so much that we needed years to think about memorializing another war. And then it was Korea, America's first bloody conflict that ended in stalemate rather than clear victory.

The World War II memorial took longer. Even a "good war," the one that really did preserve human freedom from tyranny and end selective extermination, was colored by the utter confusion of Vietnam, how we felt about it and about those who went there to fight it, and how we feel about it even now.

It's popular to observe how characteristic it was of the World War II generation that, having survived the Great Depression at home and war abroad, they were not too concerned about monuments. Certainly, they gave us the modern world in so many ways, including quantum leaps in medicine and prosthetics developed to treat their wounds and give them back their lives.

Perhaps their experiences geared them to look forward. Perhaps our experiences are the problem.

All of us have seen -- and for some, endured -- twelve years of multiple and endless redeployments to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. America's war-making in one of those places is widely regarded as having been utterly pointless. While in the other, no one will give you good odds on the chances for permanent improvement for the multiplicity of peoples there or for the geopolitical outlook.

And the ever-accumulating sum of those conflicted feelings and senses of things, past and present, are concentrated as how we feel, or don't feel, about Veterans Day.

But that's not all. America invokes a frame of reference about military service based on the archaic and bordering on the bizarre.

You cannot witness anything involving returning troops without hearing that they were "keeping us safe," or "defending our freedom," and "protecting our way of life."

Wait a minute. No. It's just not intellectually honest to say those things, or to stand by and hear them without challenge. We can respect our veterans without an excursion into fantasy and national self-delusion.

Starting with a Lie

The U.S. invaded Iraq on a premise that was not true, but not just simply untrue. It was a deliberately engineered lie, and those in charge of the American government when they unleashed "shock and awe" in 2003 knew it was a lie. All that followed in Iraq, whether you judge it to be good or bad, derives from that lie.

That does not mean that young Americans in uniform were not brave. They were. Often exceedingly so. Their professionalism, combined with personal courage, esprit de corps, looking out for their buddies and fellow soldiers and Marines and sailors and airmen, proved the value of their training and their mettle as individuals.

But they were sent there as an invading and occupying force. Whatever inflated rhetoric was employed at the time, clearly they were not there to "keep us safe" or "defend our freedom." Arguably, they were "protecting our way of life," since it was all about a scheme by a cabal to seize and control Iraq's oil production -- a scheme that failed miserably, sticking U.S. taxpayers with a $3 trillion tab to rebuild a place that, it turns out, doesn't want to be a country.

You cannot blame the troops for that. Not for any of it. But neither can you delude anyone -- the troops or the people -- into accepting that they went there, bled there, broke things there, killed there, and lost friends and comrades there, to "keep America safe."

It is worthy of cringing and tears every time a family is told, or the parents repeat, that their dead child made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq to keep us free at home.

It isn't just intellectually dishonest. It is tragically ludicrous, and those promoting it are deliberately reprehensible or sadly delusional.

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And that brings us to an appropriate place to look at the origin of Veterans Day. It began as Armistice Day, the day that ended World War I, which 100 years ago today was beginning to become the most ghastly high carnival of death the world had ever known. And how it came about was so tragically ludicrous. People in that time even recognized it for what it was, about the same way we do. Members of the same family of royalty, distributed across the palaces of Europe, took their nations to war based on interlocking alliances that protected empires which were even then collapsing.

Without World War I, history would have witnessed scenes like the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, instead of poison gas attacks and hundreds of thousands dead in the barbed wire from single attacks between the trenches.

Bear with me for a short useful excursion.

In fact, the Soviet Union was born from the endless slaughter of the trenches as people were unwilling to die for a collapsing Imperial Russian empire, seeing, as they did, the impending collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Turk Empire, and the carnage being wrought by Kaiser Wilhelm's efforts to build an empire, and Britain's efforts to maintain theirs; all were involved in World War I.

Of course America would be lured in. And after President Woodrow Wilson had won reelection with the slogan, "He kept us out of war," he couldn't. So it was up to America to "Keep the world safe for democracy," and send a fresh army into a Europe that had beat itself to exhaustion, where America was the margin of victory.

It all added to the sense of American invincibility began with the easy victory in the Spanish-American War, and the conquered territory of the Phillipines coming under U.S. control. And four decades later, becoming the obstacle to Imperial Japanese expansion, and causing them to attack Pearl Harbor.

And that excursion is relevant to our topic.

For most of American history, the nation maintained a small military structure, and it wasn't held in much esteem. Unless something happened, like the shocking loss of Custer and the 7th Cavalry, no one particularly paid attention to the military or anyone in it.

The Soviet Menace

It wasn't until World War II, fueled as much by Hollywood movies as by every male between 18 and 45 suddenly being in uniform, that the military became a big deal in American culture.

For the first time ever after a war, American remained enamored with its military, as the "Soviet Menace" was parlayed into heroes in uniform manning the bombers and submarines and missile batteries enabling "military readiness" to "keep us safe." And there it is, the beginning of the linear descendancy to today.

Of course, it was all so new at the time that it provoked President Eisenhower to warn, in his farewell address, of the dangerous rise of America's "military-industrial complex."

Curiously, while everyone should have realized that he should know, better than anyone, having commanded all the Allied forces in Europe in World War II, his call went unheeded. A military culture had taken hold of America.

Aside from Hollywood movies like "Fail Safe," "On the Beach," and "Dr. Strangelove," America seemed comfortable embracing an unprecedented military culture.

Failure to question what really happened gave us the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and a President had unlimited warmaking powers. So the nation tore itself apart over Vietnam not only over the thing itself, but because it played out against the backdrop of that sudden prominence of military culture, when we were as close as we have ever been to the Prussian mindset.

After Vietnam, for a time we seemed more mature, more thoughtful. Presidents Ford and Carter completed their terms without attacking anybody. But their examples have been unique in modern times.

The resurgence of a pro-military culture took hold with Ronald Reagan, though it's hard to see how his strong-man invasion of Grenada can square with his abandonment of Lebanon after one suicide bomber took out a hotel-turned-Marine-barracks. Still, it's undeniable that "feel-good" Ronnie began to make the country feel good again about the military after Vietnam.

Exotic and exciting military hardware also played a role. Who isn't thrilled to see a B-2 stealth bomber fly along Colorado Boulevard to open the Rose Parade? The SR-71 "Blackbird" is still cited as the plane most missed in the sky.

New York City's top attractions include the Intrepid Air-Sea-Space Museum aboard a Navy aircraft carrier. San Diego has enjoyed the aircraft carrier USS Midway as a tourist attraction for over a decade. And the same year Los Angeles received the Space Shuttle Endeavour, we got the Battleship Iowa at its new home as a floating museum in San Pedro.

How much of all this is history or the wow-factor of giant machines, and how much is military culture? That depends on each individual visitor and what they bring to it. But can anyone come for one aspect without feeling the influence of the others?

And so we come to the confusing annual place on the calendar when World War I ended, a date we have forgotten for its historical significance and morphed into something we call Veterans Day. Is there any wonder it is much an omnibus of separable and inseparable ideas and concepts and myths and realities as any preserved historic warship or aircraft or any monument on the D.C. Mall? All of those preserved monuments, whether ship, plane, steel or stone, areaa inseparable from the people, past and present, who have worn the military uniform of the United States.

Despite the events of our time and how we feel about each of them, it remains important, even vital, that we take a day to honor our veterans for putting aside their own lives and entering an environment where personal desires, goals and ambitions are in second place -- often, a distant second place -- to the needs and requirements of military service. Many among us have never put our own pursuits second to anyone or anything else. Not everyone could. Our military people and their families do that every day. And that, alone, is worthy of recognition and honor. In terms of serving others rather than self, it provides a challenge everyone should answer in some way.

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Words like recognition and honor must not be hollow words of praise.

If we, as a nation, can send people into conflicts, whether for the best of reasons or the most ill-advised and dubious, we must care for their needs when they come back. And for those who do not come back, we must, to paraphrase Lincoln, care for the spouse that is now alone, and for the orphan.

Why Keep Making So Many Veterans?

The recent scandals of the Veterans Administration served to put all of us on notice just how disgracefully we have neglected the needs of our new generation of veterans. Only yesterday, the VA announced it must hire 28,000 new doctors and nurses to meet the demand they face for medical care.

That astonishing number will join the 300,000 employees already working for the VA. It is the second largest government employer, behind the Defense Department.

At the same time, why aren't we asking why there was never the promised "peace dividend" that our nation's other needs were supposed to receive after the Soviet Union fell, when money used to protect us from a vanished adversary became an irrelevant expense?

Why aren't we asking why military spending in all its forms -- for the Pentagon and for those who served the Pentagon establishment -- still comprises, far and away, the top two sectors of the federal budget?

It is not disrespectful to veterans to ask these questions. And it is not disrespectful to ask for accuracy and intellectual honesty when we cite the service our veterans have given.

So, please: no more rhetoric about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who went through hell there -- often through an unprecedented number of deployments -- supposedly having endured all that to "keep America free." They answered the call to volunteer for military service. They went. They endured. That's more than most of us would do. That is accurate, and that is honorable.

Now it is time to keep our covenant and take care of our veterans' medical needs -- physical, mental, and emotional, which may be considerable after all they have experienced.

It is time for us to pay for their education. And we must do a better job protecting them from predatory for-profit "colleges" of dubious merit that rip-off students and taxpayers alike.

It is time for us to decide whether we are willing to keep adding to the human and economic cost of using young people in uniform as a tool of foreign policy or to maintain the dominance of Big Oil in the global economy.

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And it will always be time, not just one day a year, to be thoughtful and wise about these things and to be kind to every veteran.

Larry Wines