Rockbridge Academy Blog
On Veterans Day
Sixty years ago, President John F. Kennedy, while honoring a different occasion, spoke something that is relevant here:
“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
The tradition of setting aside a particular day to honor American veterans extends back to the end of the First World War, which concluded at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Dubbed “Armistice Day,” it was an occasion to honor the veterans of that great conflict. But because the War to End All Wars didn’t, in 1954 Congress amended the commemoration by changing “armistice” to “veterans” in order to honor all military personnel who have worn the uniform of the nation, whether in war or peace.
However, Veterans Day is just one of three holidays honoring our military. Correctly distinguishing between them is important, if sometimes confusing. Definitions help. Per US Code, a “veteran” is one who served in the US military and was subsequently released on conditions other than dishonorable. The past tense is important. Armed Forces Day, probably the least well known of our martial holidays, honors those who are currently serving. Memorial Day, as the name ought to imply, is for remembering those Americans who gave their lives while serving the nation. Though Veterans Day carries a dimension of this memorial component in that it officially honors all veterans, whether living or dead, in practice the day is largely devoted to thanking living veterans for their service.
So, on this day, Americans of all faiths or none take a moment to remember that we—the many—live under debt—to the few. Christians should be the first to do so. While the “few” we honor today are not specifically the fallen, everyone who has put on the cloth of the nation knows that in the performance of their duty they may be called to sacrifice everything. If we’re right to believe there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, then, clearly, the willingness to do so is not far off. Veterans Day, therefore, is an opportunity to fulfill, in a modest way, the obligation to pause, recognize, and reflect upon the fact that we are a free people free to enjoy the fruits of a free society because since the birth of our nation, some men and some women have willingly stood on freedom’s wall and fought and killed and risked death to keep us safe. In response to such service, gratitude is appropriate.
My own consciousness of this debt is continually reinforced in two primary ways. First by the friendships—both deep and wide—that I have forged with active duty, retired, and former servicemembers through my professional work as a teacher, scholar, and ethicist who focuses on the moral dimensions of war. Their presence in my life reminds me that freedom isn’t free. Second, there is a photograph I have of my paternal great-grandparents standing near a collection of framed portraits of their four sons and daughter, my grandmother. All the children are in military uniform, save one—he died as a toddler of a botched tonsillectomy. One among the others, and bearing the uniform of the Army Air Corp, is my great-uncle Edward, from whom I received my middle name. Uncle Ed was a gunner assigned to the 783rd Squadron of the 55th Bomber Wing. He died on takeoff over the airfield in Pantanella, Italy, when a device placed by an Italian saboteur detonated, killing him and the rest of his B-24 Liberator’s crew. As providence would have it, Uncle Ed died during the squadron’s first (and only) mission to Slovakia, where their objective was to hit a marshaling yard in Devinska Nova Ves, a suburb of Bratislava. As it happens, I lived in Bratislava for more than a decade. While there, among other things, I helped build and run a sports and recreation program in Devinska. We built a baseball diamond not far from the main railway station, presumably, my Uncle’s intended targeting point. I knew nothing of Uncle Ed’s attempted mission while living there. And while it’s silly, the fact of it all makes me now feel somehow connected to him—as if I managed to get to where he was trying to go. Of course, and even better, I got to throw baseballs when I got there, not bombs (My guess is Ed would have liked that better too). This anecdote touches on something that mustn’t be missed: Veterans Day reminds us that bombs must sometimes come before baseballs. This is to say, war is sometimes required to make the conditions for peace possible. The good work that was done on that baseball field—the simple joys of kids playing games with strong and healthy bodies in a free and self-determining society and with aspirations for a meaningful future—was purchased at the cost of men like my Uncle Ed being willing to stand and risk everything to resist those who crossed borders without cause in order to subjugate their neighbors.
This isn’t to make a fetish of either war or nation. But it is to acknowledge the realities of human life. Wars are terrible things. But sometimes they are necessary to prevent or end things that are more terrible still. The Christian tradition of just war takes seriously two truths. First, it recognizes, as the beginning of Genesis teaches us, that human beings, made in the image of God, have a responsibility to exercise stewardship, or care—dominion—over all the earth. It also recognizes, second, that dominion in this world will be exercised in light of the reality of human sin. There are some people, and some nations, that have no interest in loving their neighbors but only in dominating them. Therefore, and however lamentable, the just war moral framework insists that there may be times when a political sovereign—that person or body over whom there is no one greater charged with the care of the political community, determines, in the last resort and for the aim of peace, that nothing other than the proportionate and discriminate use of military force will retribute evil, take back what has wrongly been taken, or protect the innocent. In such cases, and only such cases, war is required to restore order, justice, and to make possible the conditions for reconciliation.
Veterans Day reminds us that the political conditions necessary for human beings to flourish cannot be had for a trifle. They are secured at a cost—sometimes a very great cost. This cost isn’t merely the physical risks our warfighters take. It includes the moral risks, the spiritual bruising, great and small, that comes from doing terrible things—even if justified and necessary—to our enemy-neighbors. Veterans Day, therefore, also reminds us that while there is nothing glorious about war in and of itself, there is surely something glorious about being a nation composed of men and women who are willing to stand on freedom’s wall, in service of their neighbor and just cause, and to justly fight those wars that are necessary and just to fight.