Before it was it was renamed “Veterans Day” in 1954, America commemorated Armistice Day. That started in 1919, one year to the day after the Armistice of Compiègne ended the industrial warfare that had killed 10 million young men with machine gun fire, artillery shells, and mustard gas in “The Great War.” America buried 117,000 of her sons; France, over 1 million.
To “commemorate” is to “remember together.” We will not forget our dead, in other words, and we will pray their sacrifices were not in vain. The Great War is of course now called World War I. A generation later, Europe began the horrifying carnage of World War II. The dead of the Great War did not secure a lasting peace.
This week, Americans consider again what Veterans Day means for them. A lot of people get the day off from work. Federal offices are closed. Maybe it’s a day to catch up on errands and housework. The stores at the mall advertise Veterans Day sales, and a lot of people go shopping.
America typically doesn’t think of Veterans Day as a time to “remember together.” Veterans themselves, who comprise about 7 percent of the entire population, don’t need a special day to remember. The veterans who went to war remember only too well. “That’s the real trouble I have: remembering some things so clearly,” wrote Adam Posadas, who as a soldier spent a year in Iraq interrogating prisoners dressed in bright orange jumpsuits. “But I can’t forget. We cannot any of us afford to forget.”
Most Americans keenly want to honor veterans, even if they worry just how to do that. Should I attend a speech? Put a “Support Our Troops” sign in my front yard? Watch the new PBS documentary on Vietnam?
If Americans aren’t very comfortable with the idea of “remembering together,” it’s not their fault. We’ve created a happy nation able and willing to insulate ourselves from the real cost of war. War is not just measured by the dead we bury and the maimed we can never fully heal. It’s measured by all those who can never forget—all those who carry the memories of Baghdad, Falluja, Mosul, Helmand, Kandahar, and so many others. Talking about the real cost of war is terrifying. We know that, and we struggle with this awful truth.
But if America ever wants to “remember together,” it will have to learn to listen to its veterans and learn. On November 9, at the American Legion Post 160 in Seattle, fifty people came to hear Dennis Eller, Robin Eckstein, Brandon Mitalas, Nikki Davis, and Joe Stone, Sr., read portions of their stories in What They Signed Up For: True Stories By Ordinary Soldiers. These five veterans went to war. They remember. We can best honor them by remembering together.
Jeb Wyman is the editor of What They Signed Up For: True Stories by Ordinary Soldiers, published by Blue Ear Books.