It was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” Instead, it was the brutal conflict that introduced a host of new forms of modern warfare making the battlefield more dangerous than ever, and ultimately served as a precursor to other wars and conflicts that would follow throughout the 20th century.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The “Armistice Day” celebration of 1919 celebrated the one-year anniversary of the war’s ending, and eventual gave way in 1926 to the official designation of Veterans Day for this date. The day became a federal holiday in 1938.
It is fitting that on this day to honor veterans, we look back 100 years to the end of World War I. There are no longer any veterans of that war for us to recognize, but their sacrifices helped to build the foundation on which the United States is built.
All battlefields are places of human misery, but the trench warfare of WWI, the introduction of tanks and airplanes to the field of battle for the first time, the thousands killed by artillery fire, the diseases and illnesses among the troops, and the numbers of soldiers who returned home suffering from “shell shock,” stand as evidence that WWI elevated the art of war to a new level.
It was those soldiers from World War I who the first Armistice Day recognized. It is all those who serve in the nation’s military that we honor today as veterans.
Twice each year Americans pause to reflect on the members of the military who willingly defend the “American way of life.” Each May we honor those who died for their country with Memorial Day. Today, we salute all those, living and dead, who have worn the uniform.
And the little we do to say thanks is never enough.
There are roughly 20 million veterans in the United States today, about 2 million of whom are currently active duty or reserve forces. Georgia is among the states with the highest number of active or reserve personnel, with about 88,000.
For much of the last century, the core of veterans in the nation tended to be those who served during the period of the World War II, but age has dwindled the numbers of those from the “Greatest Generation.” Based on 2016 projections, the largest single block of veterans today are those who served in the Gulf War era.
We are all guilty of too frequently taking the men and women of the nation’s military for granted, simply assuming there will always be someone willing to wear the uniform, but in reality the percentage of the nation’s total population who have experienced military service continues to drop. In 1980, some 18 percent of adults in the United States were veterans; in 2016, that number had fallen to 7 percent.
One area in which that decline is particularly noteworthy is in the country’s political leadership. According to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of the U.S. Senate in 1975 had military experience; by 2016, that number had dropped to 20 percent. Whatever the percentage, there is little question that the federal government has failed to adequately fulfil its promises and obligations to many of its veterans once they left the service behind.
It is fitting that we recognize the nation’s veterans just days after having gone to the polls nationwide. As frustrating and divisive as our electoral process can be, there are still many nations for whom the concept of electoral freedom is little more than a dream. That it exists in the United States is largely due to the willingness of the American military to fight abroad to protect the freedoms and liberties we too often assume are the norm worldwide rather than the exception.
Perhaps most remarkable about our nation’s elite military forces is the fact that those who serve do so willingly as volunteers. While conscription has been used during different periods of the nation’s history, it has been 45 years since the draft was last utilized in the waning days of the Vietnam War.
That we owe so much, to so many who have willingly put themselves at risk on behalf of our nation and its people is undeniable. That we do not do nearly enough to honor the debt we owe to those who serve also is indisputable.
It’s as simple as this: Without the nation’s military and those who volunteer to serve, our country would not be secure, our democratic republic likely would not exist, and the world in which we live would be a more dangerous place to be. When you think about it in those terms, taking a minute to say thanks on the 11th of November each year seems a small price to pay.