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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day: A US Tradition

November 11 is Veterans Day in the U.S. – a federal holiday to honor all military personnel who have served the U.S. in all wars.

This is the first Veterans Day since the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December. The holiday this year is also a chance for Americans to thank the rapidly shrinking population of World War Two veterans.

The U.S. president places a wreath every Veterans Day at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Communities across America traditionally hold Veterans Day observances and ceremonies. Federal offices will be closed Monday in recognition of the holiday.

Veterans Day – originally called Armistice Day – was first observed in 1919. One year earlier, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice between Germany and the Allied nations took effect.

Britain honored its war dead Sunday – Remembrance Day – with a moment of silence at 11 a.m., local time.

Veterans Day and the debt we owe

After World War I, even as the five million men who served in the armed forces were returning home, the United States was in the midst of a postwar recession. Farm prices had dropped, and defense production had come to a halt. While the economy rebounded, thousands of veterans remained unemployed. Even as cities built massive monuments (such as the one in Kansas City that now houses a museum to the First World War) and constructed scenic drives (like Victory Memorial Drive in Minneapolis), and the military interred one of the fallen in the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington, seeing veterans on the street served as a reminder of American participation in the war.

More than 116,000 had died in the Great War, and nearly five million returned to a country that had been changed by their service. In 1919, in recognition, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the nation should honor the veterans of the Great War with a day of prayer, gratitude and commemoration. On Nov. 11, the anniversary of the Armistice, parades, civic ceremonies and church services honored the living and the dead. It was fitting that a nation that had fought in the war to end all wars should spend at least one day a year honoring those who served; but it was not until 1926 that Armistice Day became an official day of remembrance. In 1938, following the custom of 17 states, the federal government made Armistice Day a legal holiday.

By the 1920s, many began to rethink what the war had meant. The veterans who fought in the First World War, the first to be drafted since the Civil War, were newly seen as "the lost generation." In Europe, where military casualties of the Great War mounted to nearly nine million as the war ground on for four bloody years, that loss was real and palpable. For Americans, the nation's brief participation in what came to be called "the European war" had begun to stir conflict over what the nation's sacrifice had meant. Still, the loss — real and figurative — also stirred a desire to remember and commemorate.

In many ways, the generation of veterans who came back from World War I had a different experience from those of the Civil War, World War II or even Vietnam. They represented a smaller proportion of their society and of their generation. Moreover, less than two million served abroad among the five million drafted.

When veterans of World War I organized, as they did in the American Legion and by joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars, their demands for greater compensation for their wartime service (called the Soldier's Bonus, passed in 1924) and their equally persistent fight for medical care and disability pensions expanded the system of military and veterans' hospitals, and later provided an argument for the G.I. Bill. At the same time, World War I vets did not receive their bonus for nearly two decades after the war was over. It took nearly 20 years before Congress opted for an early payment in 1937; some veterans waited for the original payout date of 1945.

In 1954, following the Second World War and the Korean War, advocates for veterans proposed that Armistice Day be renamed Veterans Day in honor of all those who served in the armed forces. For their part, veterans' organizations and the aging generation of World War I vets supported the measure. Their support, like the countless conversations that took placed between fathers and their drafted sons on the eve of war, signaled a generational passage.

The more than 16 million veterans of the Second World War eventually established their priority over the generation before them. Through their sheer numbers, they came to dominate in the labor force, civil service employment and even politics, holding the White House for most of the 40 years between Eisenhower (a veteran of both wars) and the election of baby boomer Bill Clinton in 1992. At the same time, the centrality of World War II and its large cohort of veterans sometimes obscured public recognition of the debts owed veterans of the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict. Vietnam veterans created their own organizations, worked politically to demand greater attention to their needs in the face of such hazards as Agent Orange and the first-named post-traumatic stress syndrome cases, and visibly contributed to discussions about the military, foreign policy and the role of government.

Since the end of the military draft in 1973, the role of veterans in our national political culture has changed. Both Gulf War and Iraq War veterans have been elected to political office, but veterans and those soldiers in continuing service have little visibility. In part, that is a function of the numbers. The end of conscription and the beginnings of a voluntary force meant that service was no longer compulsory; and compensation for soldiers and veterans took on new meaning. Fewer people performed national military service, and fewer families had an understanding of the great hazards that faced veterans returning from military service.

In many ways, the veterans of the Gulf War and the new veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have become another lost generation. Millions have served and continue to serve, even as we now have more than six million veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Casualties from the war, including more than 6,000 dead and more than 35,000 injuries (including an unprecedented number of traumatic brain injuries), and the growing epidemic of suicides of soldiers who have served in the region, are seldom mentioned. It had been the policy of the Bush administration not to have the coffins of U.S. servicemen and women met on their arrival in the United States. While this has changed under the recent president, political conflicts have held better compensation and attention to veterans' needs at bay, even while the nation focuses on domestic concerns.

Veterans Day offers us the opportunity and the occasion once again to honor those who served but also to honor the debt we have incurred by their service. It is not enough to place wreaths and crosses on graves or to salute veterans on parade. We also must address their needs — and our own. We need to reclaim that which was lost, a generation of soldiers and their service.

Elizabeth Faue is a history professor at Wayne State University.

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