The Great War that began in 1914 and finally stopped in 1918 was so terrible that many rational men believed that it would be the last war. Sixty-five million men served in the Great War. Eight and a half million soldiers died. Twenty-two million men were wounded. As is always the case in war, civilian casualties were much greater than military ones.
The tragedy shocked Western Civilization. It had been foreshadowed by the Russo-Japanese War a decade earlier. In 1905, wars had become so rare that most of the countries of the world sent observers to see how the Russians and Japanese would fight a modern war. The war was fought in Manchuria and Korea and one of its forgotten battles was for a hill, called in the modern military style, Hill 203. Possibly 16,000 Japanese died taking the hill overlooking Port Arthur from the Russians. One of the British military observers was Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton. Hamilton watched wave after wave of Japanese charge into Russian machine guns and concluded that the way to defeat entrenched machine guns was with human wave attacks. Hamilton took that lesson into the Great War where he commanded the Allied troops at the Battle of Gallipoli. The Turks against whom the Allies fought had well fortified machine gun and artillery positions. Best estimates are that Hamilton lost 78,000 men killed, 240,000 wounded and divisions more to camp illnesses before he gave up.
The Great War was both unwinnable and unstoppable and it seemed like a miracle when at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month an armistice finally held and the bloodshed ceased.
The next year President Woodrow Wilson declared that forever after November 11 would be called Armistice Day. His intention was that every year at 11 a.m. the nation would fall silent for two minutes out of respect for the lives, hopes, dreams and innocence that had been lost.
In the 1920s most states declared Armistice Day a holiday. The President began issuing an annual proclamation in 1926 reminding Americans to consider what had happened. Congress declared Armistice Day a national holiday in 1938 and the next year a new war, soon called the Second World War, began. That war was quickly followed by another war in Korea and in 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the national memorial from Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Congress voted to divorce the holiday from its historic roots and declared that starting in 1971 Veterans Day would be the fourth Monday in October so the nation could enjoy a long weekend. Popular sentiment forced the commemoration back to November 11 in 1978. In the 1980s, the commemoration began to be confused with Memorial Day, a day to remember war dead, and in recent years Veterans Day has generally become a holiday that celebrates America’s military-industrial-entertainment complex.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 22.7 million veterans in the United States as of September 2010, the most recent date for which an estimate is available. Six million of them served in peacetime, 5.2 million have served during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars; 2.8 million served during the Korean War; there are 2.6 million living veterans of World War II; and one third of all living veterans, 7.8 million men and women, served during the Vietnam War.
It might be appropriate tomorrow, on November 11, 2012 to take two minutes in the late morning to reflect, as Woodrow Wilson suggested, on those things veterans have seen, heard, felt and learned than non-veterans have not.