"The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." That was the moment in 1918 at which they put a stop to the mindless killing of World War I with an Armistice. Back then, it was called the "Great War" or the "War to End All Wars" -- because they didn't know a WWII was right around the corner.
The November 11 date was first celebrated in 1919 as Armistice Day, becoming a legal holiday in 1938. After World War II and the Korean War, Congress changed "Armistice" to "Veterans Day" -- a day to honor all veterans of all American wars. (There was brief period in which Veterans Day was celebrated as a "Monday holiday," but in 1978, Veterans Day was returned to its original November 11th date, where it remains.)
Of course, that means today there will be a lot of speech-making about honoring our veterans. It will come a day after the Harvard Medical School released a survey showing that more than 2,000 veterans died in 2008 because they lacked health insurance.
That news came on top of the fact that many of America's veterans fill the ranks of the nation's homeless. According to the VA, one third of America's adult homeless are veterans.
These grim facts are troubling enough when it comes to "honoring veterans." What nobody will say today is what then-Senator Barack Obama said in the spring of 2007, invoking a public spanking: "We now have spent $400 billion and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted."
Senator John McCain said something similar around the same time and both men quickly covered their tracks by claiming they should have said "sacrificed" not "wasted." In word-wise America, "sacrifice" has triumphed as the socially polite term for referring to the thousands of American lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no end in sight.
This parsing of language -- the distinction between the honorable "sacrifice" and the taboo "waste" -- takes on added poignancy on Veterans Day.
With the memory of Fort Hood's memorial service achingly fresh, and as Arlington and other cemeteries at home and abroad are festooned in flags and fresh flowers, some might find it inappropriate to question the "W" word. The implication is that ceremonial grieving is no occasion for truth-telling. But what better moment to ask hard questions than when the wounds are freshest?
An American President once made a very public acknowledgment of loss. Recognizing that sacrifices can indeed be wasted, Abraham Lincoln implored war-torn America to, "resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
Maybe if the country, and especially its political leadership, honestly acknowledged that all sacrifice is not created equal -- that far too many sacrifices are made in vain -- America will go a long way towards ensuring that there are fewer fresh graves to decorate next Veterans Day.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle ...
"Anthem for Doomed Youth" -- Wilfred Owens
Here is a link to a BBC page on the great poet of the World War I era, Wilfred Owens and his poems "Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth"
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