Observing Veterans Day

Jack DeVine

Today is Veterans Day. I’m sure of that because for the past week my laptop has been lighting up with ads for terrific sales. I may take advantage.

But of course that’s not what it’s about.

Veterans Day falls on Nov. 11 of every year. Per the Armistice agreement in 1918, World War I finally came to an end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Armistice Day, as it was originally called, commemorated the sacrifices of those who fought in that war. Years later, after World War II and Korea, President Dwight Eisenhower expanded the commemoration to honor veterans of all wars for their willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.

As for any holiday, on Veterans Day it’s easy for us to slip into the kick-back, day-off routine. That’s OK to a point, but we need to at least take a moment to remember what’s behind it.

Three weeks ago my wife Peggy and I attended my 50th reunion at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Like on a Veterans Day break, we had a great time with parties and food and fun. But the centerpiece was a memorial service attended by more than 300 classmates (of our graduating class of 804), honoring our 23 classmates who lost their lives in the line of duty, including six killed in action in Vietnam.

It was an incredibly moving event. There we all were – a bunch of happy old guys, flush in the fullness of long lives filled with wives and kids and grandkids and careers and weddings and graduations and periodic reunions such as this one telling and retelling sea stories about the good old days. But that morning, in Memorial Hall – a truly sacred place – we paused for just an hour to remember our friends and comrades who missed all of that, whose lives ended in our service, violently and way too soon.

Here in the U.S. there have been no wars on our soil for 150 years. For most Americans, those conflicts are relatively remote and impersonal. It is easy to lose sight of the incredible contribution that a few Americans make, in the service of all.

We also can fall into the trap of qualifying our appreciation based on the moods of the time and our judgments about the merits of our country’s military engagements. World War II is viewed as the good war, fought by “the greatest generation.” Korea was an unpopular United Nations police action. Vietnam a senseless quagmire. Many consider Afghanistan to be a justifiable intervention, but Iraq not.

Those value judgments make zero difference to the men and women in uniform who leave home and family to face hardship and peril in bad places. It matters not where they fought, whether their battles were won or lost. Each deserves our deepest appreciation, regardless of whether we are hawks or pacifists, Republicans or Democrats, veterans or not.

A few years ago, when I was living and working in England, we saw a very different picture. Nov. 11 in the United Kingdom is called Remembrance Day, a particularly fitting term, and unlike in the United States it is a day of nation-wide solemn reflection. World War I, the “war to end all wars,” cost England a generation of young men. It scarred every village and town and city on that island. In our little church in St. Bees, a tiny town perched on a hillside by the Irish Sea, there are faded photos of those who left for France a hundred years ago and never returned. It still hurts.

On Remembrance Day, 2013, I was attending our weekly exec meeting at the Sellafield nuclear site (a place something like the Savannah River Site). Before the meeting, my British boss, a CEO who runs that 15,000-person operation, asked me to watch the time and give him a heads-up just before 11:00 a.m.

I gave him the nod as requested. He abruptly interrupted the discussion. “Gentlemen, it is 11 o’clock. Let us all stand and observe one minute of silence in honor of those who gave their lives for our great country.” We did. This was a meeting behind closed doors – no one was watching. A minute later we resumed the debates on budgets and schedules. I’ve never seen anything like that in a business meeting, anywhere. From Wikipedia, I’ve since learned that that was once the practice in the U.S. on Armistice Day. It’s a good one.

Winston Churchill’s famous words come to mind: “never have so few given so much for so many.” He was speaking about the Royal Air Force protecting their homeland in the Battle of Britain in World War II, but his words ring true today, for all.

Jack DeVine is a retired executive and a part-time Aiken resident.