Ninety-three years ago today, The Great War, as it was known then, officially ended. Many years later Americans began referring to that “war to end all wars” as World War One, the number being an unfortunate result of the later and larger World War Two. But on this day in 1918 – at precisely the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – peace was realized as a result of the armistice with Germany. When the United States reluctantly entered the war the year prior, our agrarian and isolated country was ill-prepared to generate a serious military force, but as generations of Americans had done before them and would do again after them, the country organized, mobilized, and made their impact felt on another continent.
In 1938, November 11th became known as Armistice Day, and later was renamed Veterans Day after the end of World War Two and Korea. In 1968, Congress passed a law moving a number of holidays – including Veterans Day – to a Monday so Federal Employees could enjoy three day weekends, thus encouraging travel and its associated economic impact. While this worked for Memorial Day, Washington’s Birthday, and Columbus Day, the importance of this exact date for Veterans Day led to a backlash after the first year that the change went into effect. In looking back, we can immediately see why October 25, 1971 -the first Veterans Day after the change- caused many to ignore the federal holiday and maintain observance on the original November 11th. In 1975, President Ford wisely switched it back to its original date, beginning in 1978.
Many heroes of America’s wars may have initially seemed improbable. In the early days after Pearl Harbor, Butch O’Hare, the son of Al Capone’s accountant, piloted a heroic solo flight in defense of the USS Lexington against several Japanese bombers, was awarded the Medal of Honor, and became America’s first “ace” pilot in the young war. After the war the leaders of Chicago renamed Orchard Airfield outside of the city in his honor, so while the original airport code of Orchard Field remains – ORD – Chicago’s O’Hare airport is now the namesake of a young man who answered the call and exemplified the trait of service that we celebrate on this day. There is more than a little irony that travelers can gaze upon a replica of O’Hare’s F4F-3 “Wildcat” displayed in O’Hare airport from a nearby sushi restaurant.
Stories like Butch O’Hare’s have been part of our national story since the first state militias made difficult road marches to support the beginnings of the Revolutionary War, and they undoubtedly can be found among uniformed men and women who, right now, are involved in an operation in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
As I write this, I am in London where many people this week are wearing a poppy on their lapel to mark the same armistice from 1918. In the case of the British, they refer to November 11th as “Remembrance Day”, and wear poppies to remember their fallen dead. On the horrific battlefields of Flanders in 1918, only the brilliant, short-lived poppies would bloom on the battlefield,, and came to symbolize the fleeting nature of youth, as well as peace. The symbol of poppies was immortalized in John McCrae’s poem, which included these lines:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…”
Veterans Day, however, is not about famous pilots or other war heroes. Veterans Day is a moment for us to acknowledge the contributions of everyone who served honorably, and in so doing contributed to our peace, prosperity, and culture. The naval reservist who studied radar operation during weekend drills; the Air Force mechanic who performed maintenance on a transport plane; the countless military personnel who worked in the mess halls, processed the paperwork, and kept it all moving in both peace and war are among the veterans we thank today.
We have not always treated our veterans with the honor they deserve. There was a countercultural backlash against veterans after the unpopular Vietnam War, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that being a veteran is itself inherently countercultural, rebelling against many themes of hyper-individualism we are sold in today’s commercials and “reality” television programming.
Instead of wearing the latest style, the veteran wore a uniform. Instead of seeking to be served, the veteran served a cause. Instead of choosing “easy”, the veteran chose “hard”. Instead of saying “me”, the veteran said “we”. And it is through these choices that we celebrate the veteran on this eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2011.
Published November 11, 2011.