This has been on my mind for years, posted here to help process it again.
Veterans day occupies more space in my mind than it should. I think part of this is because the meaning of the holiday isn’t living up to its historical roots and every year, we slightly miss the point.
I was asked to present at my school’s Veterans day program back in 2015. Below is that speech. I bolded parts as a TL:DR since this long speech.
Thank you for inviting me
Was part of the Iraq War in 2005, it is exactly 10 years since then.
Since then I have been teaching middle school in Minnesota.
To be honest, there are people who deserve to be up here speaking more than me. The problem is that the people who most deserve this honor cannot be up here or have been up here too many years.
With this in mind, I have a question for you. I asked myself this question years ago as our country struggled to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (where we still have troops)
The question is simple.
What is Veterans Day?
If you ask this question, people say it is about honoring veterans and remembering sacrifices, but there is almost always uncertainty in the answer. The question is treated like an opinion question, with no real defined answer. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that part of the answer was missing. So I started to research what Veteran’s Day is all about.
How did Veterans Day get started?
World War One ended on the 11th month, 11th day, 11th hour of 1918.
It was signaled by the signing of the Armistice. This war had brought mass death to a new level that horrified the world – new machine guns, chemical weapons, war planes, tanks, naval technology had killed many millions. Most of the soldiers were poor and working class young boys and men who were fighting a fight that served very few individuals at the expense of millions of lives.
This was the horrific reality that people had come to realize as brothers and sons failed to come home alive. But early in the war it was glamorous and romantic to adventure and fight heroically. This bravado sent many young men to places that were neither glamorous nor romantic.
The horror of war and the shame of having celebrated it made Armistice day a celebration of peace. This is what was celebrated on the first Veterans Day.
It was a day to remember the sacrifices, honor those who died, the same as our current veterans day. But it was more than this. It was the day that, once a year, we would collectively remember and recoil from the life-stealing, vitality wasting, deeply scarring thing that is war and recommit to the cause of peace.
The society that created armistice day had first hand knowledge of the ruined lives, broken families, deep anguish, and broken men and women who returned, along with the memory of the nationalistic fervor that gripped them as they enthusiastically went to war. Their response was a day that includes everything that we have during our Veterans Day (remembering and thanking Vets) but focused it on one goal (and the one thing we often miss): Peace. To avoid making more veterans.
Back to Veterans Day, 2015
Today, we don’t have the collective memory of war. There are no bombed out buildings on your daily commute. Not bullet holes in the walls of our town centers. I am thankful for this, but most people have no concept of what war looks like outside of sensational movies or heroic video games. It is far away, in dusty (or dust filled) photographs, rubble-filled streets and places that frankly seem too far away to matter. I am a teacher and I often stop our daily news show in class to point out that those streets are the places kids may have been playing days ago. That the blown up building is someone’s house, and the bullets are getting stuck in someone’s wall.
If you listen to the news or commentary on today’s world, war, bombings, invasion are discussed and tossed around as easy options, as if they don’t have consequences or the families caught in the crossfire do not matter. The main argument against war, it seems, is the cost. If only war was less expensive, we could have a lot more of it. If you listen carefully, cost in dollars seems to be the only limiting factor as to how much war we make.
During the Iraq war, many new veterans were made, of which I am one. The burdens on the families of veterans were and are the same as in WW1, but those burdens are hidden in isolation, away from the surrounding communities.
Every year, veterans day rolls around, and people very graciously want to thank and remember the service of veterans and their families. Assemblies are called, flags are waved, and everyone somberly remembers and says “thank you”. This is a very good thing. A rock concert is sponsored and televised to show how much we support our veterans, and politicians make a show of how much they “support the troops”
But as November 12th rolls around, however, those same individuals and families carry the same burdens for another year. The politicians vote against funding new veterans health care facilities, setting up the next VA scandal and then acting shocked that the VA is messed up. (Maybe “supporting the troops” is just something you say at concerts.)
And new veterans are made, if we feel like can afford to make war from the current conflict. Apparently, the strongest arguments against war are the dollars wasted and not the lives wasted.
Veterans day is missing one vital piece and without it, “Supporting the Troops” rings hollow: the pursuit of peace. Without pursuing peace, Veteran’s day endorses or even celebrates every future war, regardless of whether or not it it could have been avoided. Pursuing peace builds common ground in communities where an isolated few families bear the burden of present and past wars. Pursuing peace debunks the subconscious idea that American lives are the only ones that matter. Pursuing peace makes people pause and wonder what it would feel like to be in the place that is getting occupied or bombed by drone. Pursuing peace makes it harder to make war even when we can afford it.
Pursuing peace honors and remembers those who served in the past and present and is what thanking a veteran truly looks like.