This day of reflection began as a remembrance of the Great War, the war to end war.
The new technology of war that flowered between 1914 and 1918 included tanks, indirect artillery fire, aerial spotters, machine guns and the smokeless powder that made them feasible, telephones, electricity, topographic maps, rifles with interchangeable parts, hand grenades, napalm, aeroplanes, zeppelins and poison gas. More than 19 million soldiers and 20 million civilians died.
Eventually the Generals, on behalf of the politicians, signed an armistice in a railroad car near the small city of Compiègne in Northern France. The cease fire was to go into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month Paris time, A year later President Woodrow Wilson renamed November 11 Armistice Day and asked that all Americans observe two minutes of silence at 11 a.m.
Some Sound Bites
Congress made Armistice Day a national holiday in 1938. For the next 15 years the world was engulfed in war again. President Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday to Veterans Day in 1954.
Veterans Day became a Monday holiday in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, so that those who had sacrificed nothing might be rewarded with another long weekend.
In 1978, a year after President Carter pardoned the draft dodgers, Veterans Day was moved back to November 11.
Today the “average” veteran is a 65-year-old Vietnam Vet who was drafted or enlisted in 1969. As of 2013, when the average veteran was 63, about 320,000 Vietnam veterans had filed service related-disability claims and about 192,000 of those claims had been approved by the Veteran’s Administration.
About 875,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan receive service related disability payments for conditions such as tinnitus, back aches, high blood pressure and post traumatic stress disorder.
About 6.4 percent of veterans are “Hispanic,” 11.6 percent are Black and about 78.3 percent are White. An estimated 50,000 veterans are homeless. About a third of all homeless men are veterans. The most veterans live in California, Texas, and Florida.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Veterans Day has become famous for retail sales. This year for example, “In honor of Veterans Day, Kmart is taking 10 percent off apparel, toys and home goods.” Macy’s. Sears, Overstock, Amazon, Lord & Taylor, Fred Meyer Jewelers and Hanes are also honoring veterans with a sale.
Almost a century ago, the young British poet Wilfrid Owen used his magic with words to tell the truth about combat veterans. It is not a pretty truth.
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Owen didn’t make it to the Armistice. He died on November 4, fighting for a ditch called the Canal de la Sambre à l’Oise.
His words are still worth two minutes.