Today in the United States we celebrate Veterans Day. In the U.K., this day is known as “Remembrance Day”, on which people remember members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty; in France, Belgium, and many other countries, it is known as “Armistice Day”, marking the date of the end of hostilities on the Western Front in World War I. Only in the U.S. do we honor on this day all those who have served in the armed forces.
Veterans Day is also the only official U.S. holiday devoted to people who do a particular job. Labor Day celebrates the achievements of all workers, and what is sometimes referred to as “Presidents Day” remains, officially, “Washington’s Birthday“. Only service members are commemorated specifically for the work they do or have done. Given the dangers and sacrifices our soldiers, sailors, and airmen have faced, this is altogether fitting and proper.
I have been reading a remarkable book by the military historian Michael Stephenson, titled The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle. Without being exploitative or gratuitous, Stephenson explains in sobering detail the threats to life and safety that warriors have faced through the ages as technology and tactics have evolved. Like all good military writers, he conveys a sense of both the historical and the personal. Military conflict has always been infested with egotistical leaders, foolhardy adventurers, and unwilling conscripts; yet there have also always been fighters who understood the burden, risk, and horror of what they were facing, and faced it anyway. In reading Stephenson’s book, and getting a clearer sense of the magnitude of those risks and horrors, I am paradoxically struck by both an abhorrence of battle and wonder at the people who fought.
I think the best way we can honor our veterans is not simply to remember them, but to be inspired by them. Veterans Day is dedicated to people who do or did a particular job, and for many of them that job can be summed up as “confronting hardship and pain for a greater purpose”. What could we all accomplish, as individuals and as a nation, if we could make that a part of each of our jobs? Reasonable people could disagree about whether any particular military action truly served a “greater purpose”, or about whether any situation faced by an ordinary civilian could compare to being at war, but I don’t think inspiration rests on either of those issues.
The plain truth is that the men and women who served their country have demonstrated that human beings can bear levels of discomfort, fear, and uncertainty that most of us would never even consider, in order to get the job done. If we can recognize that as a sign of just what we are all capable of, and let that inspire us in our own efforts to do good work — for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nation — we can honor our veterans by making the world they fought for worth fighting for.