Once upon a time in America, we had a different name for Veterans Day: like many other nations, we called it Armistice Day, and it carried something of a different meaning to us than it does today.
As christened by Congress in 1926, Armistice Day was meant to mark the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, and to set aside November 11 henceforth as a date to be marked by "thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations."
W.B. Yeats described the somber attitude America had toward war after that awful bloody conflict in his poem, "The Second Coming." In it, Yeats describes war as "a shape with lion body and the head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," and its declaration as "stony sleep vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, its hour come round at last."
Armistice Day became Veterans Day in America after World War II. President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that November 11 should be a celebration of all veterans living and dead, instead of a date purely for remembrance and peacemaking. Yet, in his proclamation (PDF), even the great general adds: "let us reconsecrate ourselves to the cause of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts may not have been in vain."
Americans love to throw parades and go out to eat on Veterans Day. We like to go out and play football, gather at VFW halls, put on patriotic displays and donate generously to veterans charities. These are just a few examples of the good-hearted nature of the American people in observance of a particularly somber day, given the losses of the last 12 years.
Around the nation in 2013, what are folks doing for Veterans Day? In Mississippi veterans can get free entrance to national parks, free pancakes at Denny's or a free meal at Hooters, provided they also buy a beverage. In Maryland there's going to be some parades and ceremonies, and a local church in Washington County is having a chicken dinner. Dallas and Fort Worth are doing the parade thing too, and hosting an event with NBC dedicated to a new website that helps veterans get jobs, which sounds promising.
These are well and good. Everyone likes a nice parade and chicken dinner. And I'm sure plenty of veterans will enjoy their free food at Hooters, provided they shelled out for some overpriced sugar water. But all of that is missing the point.
To me, something about Veterans Day changed after September 11, 2001. It was a bigger change than when we swapped out Armistice Day and decided to celebrate all veterans instead of just those who died. On Veterans Day 2002, 2003, 2004 and so on, the tone in the media -- particularly the right-wing channels -- became very pro-militaristic, not just pro-military.
Veterans Day underwent a strange sort of mutation during those angry days before and after George W. Bush's reelection, with hundreds of thousands of our men and women deployed and recruitment ads playing in movie halls again for the first time in generations.
The worst of this warping happened when those "Support our Troops" ribbons became synonymous with "Republican" and "Bush voter." It was then that the tradition of reflecting upon the horrors of war was completely snuffed out. Veterans Day began to seem more like a celebration of militarism as a national value.
Although, perhaps it is by now. America has been embroiled in some kind of conflict constantly since World War II, for good or ill. Our forces that once conscripted the sons of rich and poor are a distant memory; today's all-volunteer military mostly comes from lower-income areas, heavily populated by minorities. We've been buying our young people's lives away from them for so long that it makes a twisted kind of sense to turn our day of remembrance into a sales pitch.
Even so, those days are behind us now; the war in Iraq is over, and the war in Afghanistan is ending. In fact, it should be over "by this time next year," if President Barack Obama's statement on Monday is to be believed. With those wars, the harder edges of that Bush-era militarism has worn off too, even though our defense spending remains near record levels. But the meaning and celebration of Veterans Day has never really gone back to what it once was.
After all they've done to build and shape this deeply flawed, often magical modern world we inhabit, shouldn't we try to give something back on Veterans Day that's a bit more lasting than a free movie ticket or slice of pie? Not everyone can ring up the diplomats of an estranged foreign nation, but we can all start by sowing the seeds of peace in our own communities.
If we can manage to do that, maybe one day soon we won't have to fear what kind of dingbat extremist might be coming to power next election, aided in no small part by the divisions our own frayed relationships caused.
Photo: Flickr user Public Information Office, creative commons licensed.