Ninety-five years ago today, the Armistice that ended World War I – what had been called “the war to end all wars” – was signed. A year later, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first anniversary as “Armistice Day” as a reminder, he said, of the horrors of war.
Congress made Armistice Day a national holiday in 1938. It wasn’t until 1954 that the name was changed to Veterans Day and the holiday officially became a day to honor all veterans of military service.
Through the lens of history, the reasons for the change that year are obvious. World War I hadn’t ended wars. The nation had just come through World War II and Korea. The ranks of veterans had swelled tremendously during that time, and America sought ways to express gratitude for their service.
The most tangible means was the GI Bill, passed after World War II, that sent a whole generation to college, most of them the first in their families to achieve a higher education. But a national holiday dedicated to veterans was a symbolic statement of the respect and debt owed those who had borne the nation’s burdens and defended its freedoms in times of war and peace.
Today marks one of the occasional convergences of the actual Veterans Day, Nov. 11, with a Monday, meaning it’s also the day the holiday is observed for federal employees and some businesses. As with Memorial Day, dedicated more specifically to service members who lost their lives, the full meaning of Veterans Day can get overlooked.
Military service, whether voluntary or conscripted, is owed a special place in the pantheon of American virtues. This nation was founded as, and still remains, a unique experiment in the history of the world. The idea of liberty and self-governance was brash, bold and new when the first colonial soldiers took up arms against the British. It has required vigilant defense ever since.
Military service, ironically, is counter-cultural in a sense to other American principles. Service members turn over some of their freedoms to defend ours; they serve others, sometimes at great cost and always at some level of sacrifice, so that the rest of us can pursue our self-interested paths. Whether they’re in for a few years or a lifetime, veterans have put the interests of their countrymen ahead of their own.
We owe them for that. Not just a day of recognition and occasional salutes, but the benefits for their services and the tangible rewards they’ve been promised. Anything less is unworthy of our heritage.