Trying to understand Veterans Day: What and whom are we honoring?
Author: Patrick Teegarden - November 4, 2011 - Updated: November 4, 2011
Here’s how well I understand Veterans Day — I told my publisher/editor/friend, Ms. Strogoff, how thrilled I was to write about this important national holiday, because it had in fact been originated by Civil War General and Congressman John “Blackjack” Logan. Which would have been correct if we had been talking about Memorial Day! In the immortal words of Gilda Radnor’s Emily Litella, “Never Mind.”
But Veterans Day is in fact a difficult holiday for me to understand. This much I know to be more or less factual — it was originally “Armistice Day,” celebrating the end of fighting in World War I and the return of our brave soldiers, affectionately known then as “Doughboys.” Fast forward to our “Greatest Generation” saving the globe from Nazi Evil Incarnate and Japanese Imperialism in World War II, and our “police action” in Korea to halt “Red Chinese Communism in its first attempt at World Domination,” and suddenly “The War To End All Wars (WWI)” wasn’t the only source of American war veterans.
In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (America’s third greatest general to be elected president) signed the proclamation first designating November 11 as Veterans Day rather than Armistice Day. Since that time, we’ve apparently gone back and forth as to whether the holiday would always be celebrated on November 11 (the original Armistice Day in 1918, when WWI hostilities ceased), or on a Friday or Monday so as to enjoy a three-day holiday weekend.
For reasons that escape me, November 11 was finally determined to be sacrosanct no matter what day of the week it happened to fall on. This questionable outcome occurred through an apparently now-extinct American civic tradition: Congress mustered bipartisan support to pass a bill [Public Law 94-97 (89 Stat. 479)], and the President (Gerald R. Ford) signed the legislation on September 20, 1975, setting the November 11 date for holiday observance, beginning in 1978.
But so much for the bare bones history of Veterans Day. I’ve always had ambivalence, bordering on outright uneasiness, about what we’re supposed to do with this supposedly patriotic day. Please understand, I have the deepest admiration for those veterans who served in time of armed conflict on behalf of our nation, and I proudly join with all other proud Americans in honoring their service and their sacrifices.
But c’mon! Who in this nation actually does not honor those brave men and women for their service? I would venture to guess that even the most strident of the anti-War protesters throughout our history are more than willing to step up and acknowledge their gratitude and pride for our servicemen and women who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf over the past 235 years.
The more salient and interesting point to me is why we’re apparently unable to put better meaning and commitment into the foundation upon which we salute these folks. And I’m not referencing our inadequate government programs and services for returning veterans, although that topic also deserves a lot of reflection around Veterans Day.
Instead I tend to get stuck on more harrowing inconsistencies to our easy and bubbly patriotism. Several examples:
At the end of the Civil War, the nation was willing to thank the 130,000 plus African-American Union soldiers who Abraham Lincoln as much as admitted had made victory possible. But within 10 years, under pressure to reconcile a divided and bitter white population, the winners (the United States of America), who defeated the insurgent guerilla rebel forces (aka The Enemy) chose to enter into a bargain with the Devil!
Never mind that the Confederacy had sought to destroy the nation in order to preserve human slavery as the foundation of a feudal society. I’m quite supportive of reconciliation, identification of common goals and dreams, etc. But in this instance, the victors chose to purchase that reconciliation by pronouncing another one-hundred plus years sentence of near bondage, second-class citizenship, inferior education, and lynching upon the “good guys.” Yes, upon those who had fought for the Union, or had, as pre- and post-emancipation slaves worked to aid the Union effort in countless less obvious ways.
Another more recent example is the “honor” we bestowed upon WWII veterans, such as the Tuskegee Airmen. These African American fighter pilots proved to be among the most skilled, courageous, and effective of our entire Army Air Corps, only to return to the Jim Crow laws of the country for which they had fought, bled and died.
I like to focus on World War II for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that my father was a combat veteran of that war, and as Tom Brokaw deemed them, “The Greatest Generation.” He was a radio operator and gunner in a B-17 (“Flying Fortress”) in the European theater of the war, based out of England. While he didn’t talk much about his experiences in the war, he left me with two indelible images of “good vs. evil:” the Tuskegee Airmen and other fighter pilots who protected him and his comrades from Nazi fighter planes and ground fire during their bombing raids over Germany, and the horror at the end of the war of seeing first hand the conditions of the Nazi camps from which they transported civilian and military survivors.
So, bringing this angst of mine full circle, here are two sample questions for my dilemma when celebrating Veterans Day: First, do I owe the defeated German Army the same respect we apparently chose to bestow upon the Confederate Army during our revisionist “memory” of honor and bravery?
Second, at the individual level, do I owe the same respect and gratitude to each war veteran? Allow me to not-so-randomly choose two individual veterans of World War II, one a Marine from the Pacific Theater, and one an Army soldier from the European Theater. My Pacific Theater Marine was named Byron De La Beckwith, and my European Army soldier was Medgar Evers. They both made their homes in Jackson, Miss., after the war. On the night of June 12, 1963, as WWII veteran Medgar Evers returned to his family after a long day trying to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi, WWII veteran Byron de la Beckwith shot him in the back from his hiding place across the street.
I generally try to end my column on a positive note, and fortunately can do so today as well. Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery (Robert E. Lee’s former property), and Byron de la Beckwith spent his final days as a convicted murderer in prison. And as proof that patriotism and heroism has no partisan preference, we should use Veterans Day also to remember that both George H.W. Bush and George McGovern were WWII fighter pilots.
Thank you Veterans (most of you, that is), for defending our nation.
Patrick Teegarden is a Statesman columnist who is covering the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He can be reached at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.