Who's a veteran? All of them deserve thanks


November 17, 1996|By Mike Burns

ARMISTICE DAY was what it was called when I was a child. A distant point in time in a vague war that was dimmed in memory by that which had just been won by painful human sacrifice that could be seen in every street of our small town, and especially at the local cemetery.

There was no mistaking the loss of furloughed Tom, whose right sleeve was empty of the limb he had given up in agony on some battlefield in Europe. Or of Mrs. Thompson, whose parlor table was crowded with the photographs of a smiling son who would never come home. The weight of World War II had lifted from the country, but the heavy burdens of individuals were still borne in sadness.

Even Mr. Lunsford's proud display of war souvenirs -- a Nazi flag, a pistol, a ceremonial sword -- to wide-eyed young boys was tempered by a sudden wave of sorrowful remembrance that puzzled us and smothered any celebration of the glory of battle and the war. People were just grateful that the war was over, that there was some relief from the years of unbroken strain and incessant worry. But they recognized the price that was paid.

There was rightful honor for the returned veterans of that war. But it never connected in our classroom to Armistice Day, which was as remote from us children as the Civil War or the War for Independence (only those wars didn't have holidays tied to their place in history).

Armistice was a funny word at the time, a big word for a little kid. It did not mean peace and it did not mean winning, it just meant that the fighting was over. I was party to several "armistices" called and then quickly broken in schoolyard scuffles by classmates who were also amused by the novelty of the word's definition.

Armistice Day didn't relate to that world war most recently ended, which was one of "surrender" by the enemy, of "victory" expressed in V-E and V-J days.

That wasn't simply a schoolboy misunderstanding, either. Not until after the end of the Korean War was the holiday changed to Veterans Day, to commemorate all who had served in the nation's armed forces. But the day was fixed by the magical formula of Armistice Day, when the World War I ceasefire was officially signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It has stayed on that day, aside from a few years in the '70s, when holiday calendar rationalizers pushed it temporarily into October.

War to end all wars

Armistice Day marked the specific close of a specific war of the United States. It was the last national holiday for a single war, albeit the Great War and the War to End All Wars. The sweeping global conflict of World War II reduced those grand illusions, though not detracting from the gravity of the earlier war and the observance of its conclusion.

The end of the Second World War would not have its own national holiday; the outbreak of the Korean War showed that peace was only a transitory passage between international conflicts that would involve the United States.

And so Armistice Day became Veterans Day, an occasion to honor all men and women who were in military service. But the term "veteran," and those to whom it should properly apply, became a subject of controversy.

For many, a veteran was someone who had served in a declared armed conflict.

With so many millions of Americans who had been in uniform in two World Wars and the Korean War, it was understandable to distinguish between them and peacetime soldiers. Others further refined the term to mean a person who had served in a hostile theater, not just in homeside duty during a war.

In the aftermath of World War II, about 700 veterans' organizations were formed, many of them striving to define their particular participation in the war.

The two largest U.S. veterans' groups, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, require duty during an armed conflict, the VFW also specifying overseas duty in the period. (Both were formed before the start of World War II, but rapidly built their membership from that war's veterans.)

The confusion of terms persists today. A woman arranging a church service asks if you are a veteran, explaining "I mean, were you in the armed forces at any time?" A colleague responds to the question with a similar qualification of yes, uniformed duty, but no, not in an actual war. "Is that what you mean?"

Yes, that is what Veterans Day is supposed to observe. A nation's symbolic thanks to all who served, at home or overseas, in declared wars or spans of relative peace.

It is no longer Armistice Day for World War I. Nor is it Memorial Day, although most public events of Veterans Day seem focused on paying tribute to the war dead. And Memorial Day parades and festivities, conversely, seem to honor the living veterans as much as commemorating the sacrifice of fallen soldiers, the original purpose for that holiday in the aftermath of the Civil War. But there's no ill in those good intentions.

Veterans all, the nation salutes your service.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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