Veterans Day originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation in 1954 to change the name to Veterans Day as a way to honor those who served in all American wars.
Around the same time, Eisenhower added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and put "In God We Trust" on currency, in an effort to juxtapose the United States against the Soviets. A large share of the nation's Ten Commandments monuments when up at that time. It was also a time marked by loyalty oaths, black listing in Hollywood, and the McCarthyistic Red Scares. Indiana Jones petulantly tells a Russian psychic operations officer who has him in custody, "I Like Ike," as he starts to make his escape in the latest movie incarnation of the character.
The dilution of Veteran's Day from the more specific Armistice Day, has kept the holiday relevant, at a time when veterans with visible and invisible scars return from the Iraq and Afghan wars return home, but at the cost diluting its symbolic impact. For most of us, Veteran's Day is just another banker's holiday, a sort of Memorial Day lite, without the beer and BBQ.
When I lived in New Zealand, and when I visited Europe, I was stunned by how intense national memories of the slaughters of World War I are, even today, when almost all World War I veterans who returned have died natural deaths. In New Zealand, Armistice Day was nicknamed "Poppy Day" in recognition of the poppy filled fields where so many of their men died in huge, senseless set piece battles whose injustices fueled acid bath of class resentment that powered industrial era Democratization in those countries. While the U.S. bore serious casualties in World War I and World War II, Europe and Japan suffered far more than we did. We entered both wars late and spent the bulk of our involvement winning rather than facing relentless defeats.
Unfortunately, the volunteer force of today, like our society, has increasingly become divided by class, just as it was up until World War I all the world over. Our enlisted ranks are filled with young men and women who are not college bound, or can't afford to go to college without the G.I. Bill. Our officer corps is full of young men and women who have graduated from college and sometimes law or medical school. A surprisingly large share of military officers who make careers of their service, rather than mustering out after a four or five year tour, have attended the nation's military academies. Few enlisted soldiers managed to make it to officer candidate school and rise to officer status without college. Experienced sergeants continue to quietly lead the green junior officers who outrank them. The larger country, where class divides are as great as they have been since Hoover was President, mirrors this trend. Equally important, very few members of the upper middle class serve at all.
The democratizing impact of the draft on the military is now long gone. One wonders if the sense of equality and common cause developed by draftees wasn't an important reason that our economy remained fairly democratic, distributionally, when those veterans returend to civilian life. Has an end to military service, like the end of public voting that occurred and produced dramatically reduced voter turnout in the Progressive era, undermined our sense of community? Even today, older voters often go to the polls together, and share coffee and talk afterwards, making a morning of it on election day. For younger voters it is all business -- sitting around the kitchen table in order to get the ballot out as one more bit of work to produce.
While soldiers are often stereotyped as stupid brutes, low on empathy and big on mindlessly following orders, success in war requires you to be reality based and understand your surroundings. In an era of "low intensity warfare" cultural sensitivity is critical to military success. The exposure to the rest of the world that soldiers experience, even if they don't serve in wartime, changes them and broadens their horizons.
Every professor I've ever met who is old enough to have done so cherished the experience he had teaching soldiers who returned to college on the G.I. Bill after World War II and Korea, because they had a maturity, seriousness, focus, and powerful desire to learn that typical fresh out of high school undergraduates often lack.
We have one of the smallest active duty militaries that we've had since before World War II. Yet, we are fighting two regional wars and deployed many other places across the globe. A small portion of us are doing yeoman's work, while the rest of us live life as usual, without so much as a tax increase to pay for the war, or any kind of sacrifice at all. Thank you to all of you who are doing more than your fair share. The rightness or wrongness of the wars fought aren't your business. That is the stuff of politicians. You're simply doing your duty to your country, in spades.