Armistice Day. One hundred years ago today, The Great War, The War to End All Wars, came to its cataclysmic end. Fifty years ago today, I was in the Army at Ft. Bliss, Texas, suffering through Basic Training. My suffering was nothing, though, compared with that of the young men who had preceded me in war, fifty years earlier.
I don’t recall any commemorations of that fiftieth anniversary. Perhaps that was because America was deeply embroiled in another war, much further from home than Flanders’ fields. Now, so far has The Great War faded from our collective memories, that few will recall that this day was, for many decades, known as Armistice Day. Here in America, it eventually came to be called Veterans’ Day, I suppose because we’ve since had (and still have) several more wars, so we can’t afford the luxury of focusing on the end of just one.
2 September 1945? 27 July 1953? How about 29 March 1973? No idea? If we can’t put a name to those dates, we can hardly be expected to know the significance of, say, 9 April 1865, the end of a war whose total number of deaths continues to overshadow the American losses in every war since.
And the wars continue. Young men and women continue to be sent to places thousands of miles away, and some of them continue to come home in flag-covered metal coffins. Many of those who do not come home thus, return missing limbs, or sight, or mental stability. Like every other war, veterans, men and women, continue to die as a result of their wars, years after they have come home. For far too many, the war never ends. It just endures on different terrain, with different enemies, real or perceived.
My war ended on 29 March 1973. I say “my war”, because that war and I became, and remain, close friends, if friends we be. My part in it ended, officially and physically, on 13 October 1970, the day my flight took off from Da Nang Airbase. But anyone who thinks I left it behind me on that day is quite mistaken, just as they would be mistaken about everyone, in every war.
What I experienced, what my friends experienced, as young infantrymen in Viet Nam, fifty years ago, will accompany us to our graves. As it is for us, graying veterans that we are, so it is for the young men and women now serving their country’s sometimes muddled objectives in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Niger, and who knows where else. These veterans, while not exactly forgotten (certainly not by their families), they are often overlooked.
We should be careful not to do that. Life will be difficult enough for them in years ahead, without their wars too fading into difficult-to-recall dates and places. Their wars, their personal wars, like my own, will never fade away. There will never be a peace treaty in those wars. Sometimes there are surrenders, but it’s never the other side that surrenders – it’s always the veteran.
If we really want to recognize and honor veterans, then we should understand and acknowledge the fact that their war never truly ends. And when we understand that, we should return to calling this day Armistice Day. An armistice, after all, is just a temporary cessation of hostilities. Not an end. Not a peace treaty. Just a little stillness before the war resumes once again.