Omar Bradley once called Armistice Day “our day of conscience.” Speaking before the Boston Chamber of Commerce in 1948 to commemorate the end of World War II, the “GI’s General” exhorted his greater audience to reflect both on the tribute that the holiday was — “a monument to victory” — and on the citation toward “humility in our own (achievements)” it represented.
Uniting the themes of celebration and admonishment, Bradley told the crowd, was the understanding and pursuit of peace at home and abroad. This dual activity was best pursued through acknowledging the threats that can lead to war, along with, he added, acknowledging the men (and women) who stand willing to answer those threats through military service.
Armistice Day was the precursor to Veterans Day. One year after the Allied and German powers met in Rethondes, France, in 1918, to sign an armistice that halted the hostilities of World War I “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day. Its purpose was to encourage the nation to have “solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service”; to encourage “gratitude for the victory … because of the thing from which it has freed us”; and to renew America’s commitment to “peace and justice.”
Other countries also observed the day. The red poppy was used in British Commonwealth nations as a reminder to honor their fallen soldiers. The United Kingdom, France and the United States soon established tombs of the Unknown Soldier. In 1938, Congress officially established November 11 as a legal federal holiday with a special significance for promoting international peace.
A national movement to expand Armistice Day’s purpose sprung up after World War II, alongside the returning American GIs. Congress amended the 1938 act in 1954, officially renaming Armistice Day as Veterans Day — expanding the holiday to include veterans of all American wars, and giving it the distinct emphasis of celebrating living veterans.
In issuing the first presidential Veterans Day Proclamation, President Dwight Eisenhower called upon his fellow Americans to reflect on the sacrifices those who serve make “to preserve our heritage of freedom.” He also asked Americans to use the day to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting” peace, as an appropriate expression of gratitude — “so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
The reflection both Eisenhower and Bradley requested is an important civic activity for a nation dedicated to the preservation of each individual’s inherent rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s doubly important in a nation that’s forgone conscription for an all-volunteer force.
As we near the 20-year mark of the September 11 attacks, and as we continue to field our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, Veterans Day should mark an inflection point in the national discussion about contemporary obligations toward veterans and the military community. We could use a moment of reflection to analyze what we’ve almost reflexively come to ask of the Armed Forces in the name of our foreign policy in terms of continued deployments, material support stretched ever-thinner, and physical and emotional strain.
This isn’t to suggest that the result of such reflection should simply be to lavish federal monies uncritically at the Department of Defense, or to build ever-higher the hero’s pedestal for each individual who has worn the nation’s uniform — simply for having put it on. Veterans Day calls for more than unthinking praise.
Veterans Day reminds us to think more deeply about the types of character and education a society needs to staff a military that’s committed to liberty and equality. It invites us to consider not just the potential negatives of military service on individual soldiers but the positive traits it encourages and helps to shape — courage, integrity, self-sacrifice — which are the fabric of leadership. As fewer and fewer Americans have a personal connection to someone in uniform, we recognize increasingly vaguely how or why that service frequently requires personal fortitude and physical, even moral courage.
What Americans have traditionally found admirable in their peers is a moral constancy, a dedication to principle, especially in the face of danger. The monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln light the way to a broad conception of the American heroic: the steadfast obelisk, the standing thinker and the seated judge are representative of the power of ideas, rather than the domination of the sword. It’s hardly surprising then, that so many American leaders have urged the significance for peace of celebrating Veterans Day.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rebecca Burgess manages the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.