Among the papers my brother and I brought back from Florida after our father died this summer was his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. The papers show that he enlisted in the Army when he was 17, weeks after graduating from high school in Yonkers, New York in 1945. It was July. By then the Allies had defeated Nazi Germany and liberated Europe, but we were still at war with Japan. As far as I can tell, my father spent the last weeks of the Second World War in New Jersey, in the early stages of his training as a radio operator.
But the date of his enlistment mattered to me. When he signed up, he had no idea that less than a month later we would obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, and Japan would surrender. He was spared combat, but when he enlisted, it seems likely that he had every expectation that soon enough he would be on a troop ship somewhere in the Pacific.
This coming Friday is Veterans Day, a holiday that generations before us called Armistice Day. Originally it honored veterans of the First World War and was celebrated on November 11 because that was the day when that conflict ended in 1918: The armistice officially began on the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was only in 1954, after we had endured both a Second World War and a (and I use this term sarcastically) “police action” in Korea that the word “veterans” replaced the word “armistice.”
My sense is that despite the enormous sacrifices of men and women recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, for much of this country the gravity of Veterans Day has been lost. First of all, most Americans know as much about our nation’s wars between 1917, when American doughboys joined the British and French in Europe, and 1973, when we left Vietnam, as they do the Peloponnesian War. True story: Once, a few Christmas dinners past, my mother-in-law asked her grandson in high school for the dates of either the First or the Second World War. He hadn’t a clue and responded defensively, “Look, I know the First one came before the Second. Isn’t that enough?”
Moreover, unlike most previous conflicts, little has been asked of those of us who were not directly involved in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wars ravaged the U.S. economy for the very reason that we tried to fight them over the past decade without raising taxes. So, while sacrifices may loom for all of us. . .little has been asked of us since 9/11, other than taking our shoes off at airport security. Compare that with what was asked of our grandparents between 1941 and 1945.
Finally, there is this damning reality: Last month the Pew Research Center published the results of a survey that revealed the following: Only one-third of Americans who joined the armed services after 9/11 believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been worth the effort; likewise, another third believe that the conflicts were in fact not worth the time and the money and the casualties.
To a certain extent, of course, this is all armchair quarterbacking, and my point this morning is neither to celebrate nor condemn our efforts in either Afghanistan or Iraq. (I will, however, admit that I was pretty darn euphoric when we killed Osama Bin Laden last spring.) My point is simply this: This Friday is a day that merits a moment of silence or, at the very least, an acknowledgment of our women and men who are veterans. My father got no closer to combat than the suburbs of New York City, but as a 17-year-old teenager in July 1945, he was willing to enlist when the risks looked far greater than they would weeks later.
And so to all veterans, I tip my hat and I salute you.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 6, 2011. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Night Strangers,” was published last month.)