Maybe it wasn’t so complicated decades ago.
But this year, the Nov. 11 celebration of Veterans Day is clouded by the human and economic costs of America’s longest running war; rising rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among soldiers and veterans; and reports from NATO that instead of the much-ballyhooed troop withdrawal date of next summer, coalition forces will be in Afghanistan in a combat role until the end of 2014.
Shadows also have been cast by scandals involving multiple mistaken U.S. bombings of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan; U.S.-hired private security contractors running amok with too little regard for civilian life; and even U.S. soldiers being implicated in killings and rape of innocent people, and humiliation of captives.
But even all this doesn’t completely obscure American’s fundamental appreciation for the heroic self-sacrifice of our troops and veterans. In fact, according to a recent poll, Americans have more confidence in the military than they have in banks, the media, public schools and organized religion.
War weary though Americans may be, it is important to honor the men and women in the armed forces who risk their lives to defend our freedom not with brutality but with discipline, professionalism and gestures of humanity toward civilians, even in the chaos and confusion of the battlefield.
In its soldiers, America finds some of the best of itself, and its defining values distilled in a stronger form than most of us encounter on a daily basis.
Veterans Day celebrates those values, not the martial violence that puts them to the test. The focus of this commemoration has always been on peace, not war. It was first called Armistice Day, for the Nov. 11, 1918, peace agreement that ended World War I, what was then called the “war to end all wars.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former five-star general who commanded U.S. troops in Europe during World War II, also used to warn against losing focus on the goal of peace and downplaying the actual and opportunity costs of war.
In a 1953 speech to newspaper editors that rings especially true today in the wake of the Great Recession, Eisenhower said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. ... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.”
That is not to say that Americans may not, on occasion, be called to take up arms. But if Veterans Day has any message, it is to remind us of war’s human costs and the many mourning families it leaves in its wake. It also is a reminder that armed conflict should never be accepted as an inevitability.
“We must never resign ourselves to the absence of peace,” Pope Benedict XVI said last month in a homily closing a Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was often mentioned. “Peace is possible. Peace is urgent. Peace is an indispensable condition for a life worthy of the human person and society.”
This Veterans Day, pray for the safety of troops now in harms way. Pray for the consolation and healing of those wounded, and their families. Pray for the repose of the souls of those who gave their lives.
And pray for peace to reign on earth.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.