Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, the war to end all wars, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Four years of war had seen 16 million killed and another 20 million other casualties. The scale of death in WWI exceeded anything previously experienced or even contemplated, a magnitude of tragedy made possible by mechanization and massed armies.
Less than 25 years later, World War II had begun, a war with an even great toll. Since then, humans have fought fewer wars and those wars have had far fewer deaths and casualties.
Post-Korea, the United States changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day in recognition of the millions of men and women who have served, and some of whom are still serving, in the nation’s armed forces.
The military does not decide what wars to fight. From the perspective of Christian ethics, the nation should fight only as a last resort, only when victory is possible, and only when victory has a reasonable prospect for moving the world closer to genuine peace.
Honoring veterans is therefore appropriate despite the ugly and inconvenient truth that many of the nation’s wars are morally problematic. We best honor veterans in three ways:
1. By fighting only moral wars;
2. By caring for warriors and their families, especially wounded warriors, including those warriors with physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds;
3. By maintaining a strong defense, but a defense that is no larger than absolutely necessary to defend the nation and its ideas (the nation gains more from redirecting any expenditure above that minimum to other uses).
Using those criteria, we have a very poor record of accomplishment of honoring veterans. We find praying for veterans, offering glib verbal expressions of thanks, and giving veterans discounts in restaurants and stores more palatable. I support all of those efforts. My point is not that we should cease those activities but that those efforts are collectively insufficient to honor veterans genuinely and appropriately.
When I lived in London and worked with the Royal Navy, I was amazed at the importance given to Veterans Days observances, which still centered on WWI fatalities. Between one in ten and one in twelve people who lived in the United Kingdom died in WWI, a staggering death rate that literally changed the nation. We Americans should be thankful that we have never experienced similar high casualty rates.
However, U.S. veterans are three times more likely to be homeless than are non-veterans. Veterans also have substantially higher rates of many other problems (PTSD, alcoholism, etc.). The true cost of war is not measured primarily in terms of dollars but in terms of extinguished or ruined lives. I challenge you, this year, to honor veterans by becoming part of the solution to these problems, encouraging our leaders to rely on military force only as a last resort and only when likely to make the world a better place.