A Time For Remembrance

November 13, 2018 Updated: November 13, 2018

Seventy years ago, when I was a child, what then was designated “Armistice Day” for the memory of the “Great War” was more simple and straight-forward. It was simply a mnemonic curiosity that the armistice had concluded on the “the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month” of 1919. The timing merely seemed to be a bit of “PR” cleverness before “PR” was invented. Lapel pin “poppies” (now entirely passé in the United States) were standard.

But a World War I veteran was hardly unique. My local grocery store owner was a WWI vet. And, virtually every adult male in Scranton, Pennsylvania, was a WWII veteran. It was something of an oddity for a man not to have served (several of my uncles were veterans, but my father, as a new father when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and over 30 years old, was exempted).

Moreover, by the 1950s, the United States was engaged in both the Cold War and a very hot “police action” (as the Korean War was labeled), so no special commemoration of previous wars was anticipated. And, in 1954, internalizing the grim appreciation that the “war to end wars” had not, Congress legally renamed “Armistice” Day as “Veterans” Day.

After all, we were anticipating nuclear holocaust, for which the millions that died in WWI/II would barely have been a foot note to the hecatombs of death that would have occurred in a nuclear exchange.

But as time has passed and the prospect of nuclear annihilation receded, we have in some aspects become both more interested in and respectful of our casualties and commitments during the wars of the 20th century. All of our WWI veterans now have passed from the scene; our WWII combatants, if not in their dotage, are almost iconic, e.g. George Herbert Walker Bush and his departure from Yale as an undergrad to become a navy pilot.

And, we are more respectful to our Vietnam War participants, finally appreciating that our societal divisions during the 1960s-70s resulted in Vietnam Vets being treated badly—implicitly blamed for the failures of our political leadership.

Moreover, our 21st century wars: Gulf I (Kuwait liberation of); Gulf II (Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction”); and Afghanistan (post-9/11 suppression of Islamic terrorism) are fought with volunteer, highly professional armed forces with maximum success and minimal casualties.

We have outsourced our military commitment from citizen soldier “Minute Man” paradigm to a technical career, albeit with potential for unlimited liability.

An interesting variation of this evolution, however, has been societal unwillingness to accept casualties. The attitude has not quite reached level of “one death is a tragedy; 1,000 is a statistic,” but it is almost impossible to conceive of a challenge that would generate American commitment to accept losses of life at levels of any of our 20th century wars. For example, the combat deaths on D-Day were greater than total deaths after 17 years of Afghan combat.

During my lifetime, the United States has been a country of veterans: in 2015 there were 18.8 million veterans. They are not an insignificant political force: they vote (11.3 million in 2014 or 51 percent vs 41 percent for nonveterans). They trend “conservative” in political attitudes.

And, in comparison with Canada where a general has never become prime minister, 12 generals have become president. And, if not senior officers, military service was de rigueur post-WWII, as epitomized by JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Bush ‘41 [all naval officers]. Although Clinton and Obama had no military service, their opponents (Bush ’41[1992]; Dole [1996]; and McCain [2008] were combat veterans.

Until very recently, I’d viewed “Remembrance Day” as typically Canadian: a time to “remember” in the way that children might pull out old toys for a fleeting examination. Appreciation of veterans, including those with Afghan experience, appeared perfunctory.

Canadians did “peace keeping”; Americans did “war making.” I regularly attended Canadian embassy Remembrance ceremonies, including those in Arlington National Cemetery honoring U.S. citizens who fought in Canadian forces in 21st century combat.

But “centennials” apparently piqued Canadian interest with Vimy Ridge and now the global gathering in Paris to commemorate the 100-year-mark of WWI’s conclusion. The perfunctory is moving toward the profound in retrospective thought.

There is a strong tone of “never again” coupled with denunciations of “nationalism.”

And, to be sure, it will be “never again.” War is ever different.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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