November 11th: A Day of Remembrance and Thanksgiving

World War I Memorial, on the National Mall, Washington D.C.
The day after tomorrow, November 11th, is Veterans Day. Here in the United States, it is now mainly seen as a national holiday dedicated to those Americans, both past and present, who have taken up arms in the defense of the Republic. This contemporary view of the purpose of Veterans Day, however, is very different from its precursor which was first celebrated in 1919. Not surprisingly, as the years have passed, the original purpose and meaning of this national holiday has gradually faded into obscurity. It still, of course, shows up on calendars, but the significance of November 11th no longer exercises the hold it once did on the public consciousness. Time passes and memories fade; and probably nowhere is this observation more accurate than when it comes to the United States. In fact, it seems that, when it comes to important commemorative dates from our history, we Americans tend to be an oddly forgetful lot.

World War I Poster
Perhaps, this widespread inclination towards historical amnesia comes from the fact that we are a nation of immigrants. It could be that our forebears, having gambled their lives and futures on an uncertain fate in a new land, consciously chose to leave behind their traditional ties to history and place. Alternatively, it could be that both our knowledge of and appreciation for the significant events of the past have been largely erased by a modern educational establishment that no longer really teaches history at all. How else can we explain the various academic studies that show that the majority of present-day high school seniors cannot even place the American Civil War in the correct century; or that an embarrassingly high percentage of recent graduates from our most prestigious “Ivy League” universities cannot correctly identify the member nations that fought on the side of either the Axis or the Allies during World War II; much less those that belonged to the Entente or to the Central Powers during World War I? Whatever the reason, holidays such as Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Washington and Lincoln’s Birthday, and even the Fourth of July have all gradually lost much of their historical significance and their popular cachet when it comes to contemporary American culture. This popular tendency to discount the past, I cannot help but believe, is quite unfortunate. It is unfortunate because it weakens the shared historical narrative that binds us together as a nation, and also because, by encouraging us to focus too much on the mundane “goings on” of the present, it undermines both our ability and even our willingness, as informed citizens, to wisely plan for our collective future.

General John J. Pershing,
Commander, American Expeditionary Forces
Veterans Day, as a national holiday, especially suffers in this regard: first because its significance as the date of the armistice that ended World War I is far removed from our contemporary national experience; second, because it was very early-on eclipsed by its proximity on the calendar to more commercially important holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas; and third, because once the American military became an all-volunteer force, the direct connection between those who serve and the larger society mainly disappeared. During both World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and even the Vietnam War, mass conscription guaranteed that the burden of military service was widely-shared by different sectors of society. Not so today; instead, we now live in the era in which the vast majority of Americans not only do not choose to enter military service, but do not even have a personal connection to those patriotic few who do. Thus, although it may be regrettable, it is hardly surprising that a great many ordinary Americans give little, if any, real thought to either the historical meaning of November 11th, or to its more immediate significance as a day that commemorates the very real sacrifices of those who currently serve.

WWI Veteran at Armistice Day Commemoration
Speaking as a veteran of the Vietnam War, I must confess that, for much of my adult life, I nonetheless failed, like many others, to treat November 11th with the seriousness and respect that it deserves. However, as I have gotten older, I have come to realize that while I and my countrymen may occasionally suffer our lapses when it comes to acknowledging those who now bear, or who have borne the past burden of the nation’s defense, we still can and do make an honest effort to honor, however awkwardly, our debt to America’s veterans. For this reason, I believe that in spite of our wide-spread national tendency towards historical forgetfulness, it is the fundamental decency and goodness of ordinary Americans that will continue, in spite of the superficiality and shallowness of our popular culture, to come through time and time again. So, on this Veterans Day, I join with many of my fellow Americans in saluting the servicemen and women who repeatedly go into harm’s way on our behalf, and I also salute the countless numbers of civilians who, in ways too numerous to count, honor the service of our veterans, both past and present.

A Brief History of this Special Day of Remembrance

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is a major
war memorial to 72,090 missing British and Commonwealth men who
died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War and who have
no known grave. It is located near the French village of Thiepval Picardie.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I — the “War to End All Wars” — finally came to an end with the formal acceptance by representatives of the German government of the Allied terms for an Armistice. The Continent was again at peace, and the carnage of four years of industrialized warfare, after consuming the greater part of a generation of European youth, had finally sputtered to an end.

After the guns became silent in 1918, many European countries came to commemorate November 11th as a day of remembrance and thanksgiving. In the British Commonwealth, the red Poppy became the symbol for the end of the First World War’s bloodshed and the advent of peace, and remains so to this day.

Across the Atlantic, American President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the national observance of the first Armistice Day for November 11, 1919. Seven years later, the U.S. Congress passed a concurrent resolution calling for the President to again declare a formal observance of November 11th as a day of remembrance for all those Americans who had fallen during the Great War. Finally, on 13 May, 1938, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation to make Armistice Day a legal holiday.

The Desert View High School ROTC
marches in the Tucson, Arizona
2007 Veterans Day Parade.
In 1953, thanks mainly to the efforts of an ordinary store owner named Al King from Emporia, Kansas, a movement gathered momentum in the United States to transform Armistice Day into a national holiday that would celebrate the sacrifices of all American veterans, not just those who had served and died during World War I. This change was formally recognized when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the new measure into law on 26 May, 1954. A few months later, Congress amended the language of this act to replace the word “Armistice” with that of “Veterans” and, with this final change, our current federally-mandated holiday took on its present-day form.


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