In its day, World War One was called “The War to End All Wars.”
Sadly, it wasn’t.
WWI officially ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year, 1918. Each year we commemorate that ending on Veteran’s Day, which was originally called Armistice Day. There aren’t too many folks left who were around when that came to pass.
My dad was a lad of 8, in 1921, when the first unknown American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The ceremony took place at eleven in the morning on the eleventh of November, with similar ceremonies taking place in England and France. That event led to the establishment of the holiday we honor today.
My dad told me all about it. It was wonderful, in more ways than one, to be able to talk with my dad, and have such a direct link to the past. It’s was like having an interactive civics class with someone who can bring history to life.
In 1926, Congress passed a resolution formally designating November 11th as Armistice Day to honor those who gave their lives in WWI, which was also called The Great War. My dad remembers because his Uncle Willy had gone off to that war. Uncle Willy returned, but his heart and soul never came back. My dad recalls too many nights being sent to the saloon to fetch Uncle Willy, who spent most of his post-war waking moments drowning his memories in booze.
“The War to End All Wars” claimed more than 10 million lives. In 1938 Congress acted again and declared Armistice Day a national holiday. The simple definition of armistice is truce. The idealistic hope that nothing of that scope would ever happen again was dashed just a few years later with the outbreak of World War II. Then came Korea and then Viet Nam, and you can fill in the rest.
Two years before I was born, my dad went down to Army headquarters in New York City to enlist for WWII. He’d already said his goodbyes to my mom, thinking he would ship out immediately. But since the age of 5, my dad only had sight in one eye, and the Army rejected him. He was both relieved and saddened. Because he was not able to join directly in what was called the War Effort, my dad has always made a point of honoring both the fact and the spirit of Veteran’s Day.
In 1954, the sacrifices of those who died in WWII and Korea, and all other wars, were honored with the name change from Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day.
In 1968 Congress changed the date of Veteran’s day to fall each year on the fourth Monday of October. But the symbolism of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was lost, and with it the emotional gravity that had originally spawned the holiday. In addition, the Monday holiday began to take on a commercial, long weekend quality which diluted its initial respectful intent. In 1978, Congress wisely reestablished November 11 as the official observance of Veteran’s Day.
Like my dad, a major physical liability kept me from participating in the armed forces of our country. Also like my dad, I always remember to respect and thank those who were or are members of any of the services that protect my life and my liberty. I feel compelled to honor those whose actions give me the right to vote, the right to voice my opinion, to argue with authority, even to be a jerk from time to time.
This Tuesday, November 11, 2003, the first person I will thank is John W. James, my business partner and friend – make that friend and business partner. John is a Viet Nam combat veteran, and through the 17 years of our friendship I have learned things about war and what it does to people’s souls.
I have watched John make the spirit of Veteran’s Day into a real-life set of actions. I have watched him “not forget.” I have watched his walk and talk match as the hostilities in Iraq unfolded and continue. Daily, he sends letters to young service men and women who are in the line of fire. I have seen some of the responses from the grateful GIs to whom he writes.
It’s not possible for me to read those responses with dry eyes.
On Tuesday, November 11, 2003, this country will observe Veteran’s Day. Personally, I think it takes on exponential importance in light of the events that have shaped and shaken our world over the past two years. To do it justice, I will stop whatever I’m doing at eleven in the morning and walk over to John’s desk and thank him. Knowing me, there will be tears in my eyes. And that will be okay.
Because I will be stopping to think about war and its aftermath, I will also be reminded of other people who are no longer here. Not just veterans. I will think of my mom who died eleven years ago this month. I will think of other relatives and friends who are gone. I will have the emotions attached to those memories, and I will talk about them with anyone who happens to show up in my life that day.
I will absolutely reach out and touch anyone who calls, emails, or bumps into me at the office, in a restaurant, or in the park with my dog.
Lest we forget!
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