Here in the States, people call it “Veterans Day” so that we can have Veterans day blowout sales. And so that we can think abstractly about military service. Other countries call it Armistice Day, after the armistice which ended the First World War; by general agreement, the armistice was signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Most people call it Remembrance Day and they buy red poppies to fund veteran’s groups and then they hold marches.
Both of my grandparents served in the Second World War. My grandmother worked in the signals intelligence department for the Navy, while my grandfather worked for the BOB, and later the OSS, which eventually became the CIA. As often happens in military families, many family members also joined; I have a couple of cousins scattered across the services, for example. Apparently the service gene died out in my father, but I inherited a certain liking for members of the military from my grandparents.
I didn’t really know my grandparents. I inherited my grandfather’s watch, and a box from India that belonged to my grandmother, and I know that my father has various mementos of theirs as well. I only interacted with them a handful of times, although I do remember my grandfather’s last words to me: “don’t let the man get you down.” This generation of people is starting to disappear; veterans of the Second World War are going to be in the 80s, at a minimum, at this point. They’ve been called the greatest generation, and maybe they were.
The nice thing about referring to Remembrance Day as “Veterans Day” is that you don’t need to think about the men and women who are currently serving, or the injured service members recovering at places like Walter Reed. You can celebrate the greatest generation and call it good. Everybody likes veterans, right?
The military did all right by my grandparents. They owned their own house, raised three children, and lived fascinating, incredibly diverse lives. After the fact, I can be sad that I never really knew them, because they went to all sorts of interesting places and I’m sure they had stories to tell. I have inherited their stories second-hand, through my father, but it’s not quite the same.
I also think that the military isn’t doing so well by its current members and recent veterans. I think that when you sign up for military service, you’re making an agreement, with the expectation that the government will hold up its end. That you will have access to healthcare, that you will receive payments from pension funds. That you will get to march in Veterans Day parades, rather than being hidden away so that people don’t have to face reality. People don’t like our veterans now because they are injured and they have to fight for every benefit they receive, and I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t agree with the war, but I also don’t agree with letting veterans down.
Eight million people died in the First World War. They died in trenches and on fields, in hospital ships and in airplanes. Many of those injuries are probably survivable, today; who knows that the death toll would have been with the benefit of modern battlefield medicine. This war we are fighting in Iraq has cost comparatively few lives, but it is no less serious. Maybe if we called it “Remembrance Day” instead of “Veterans Day,” people would think about that.