Today is Veterans Day in the US, known as Armistice Day in some other countries. Whatever you call it, it’s the day we remember the sacrifices of soldiers and other military veterans, both present and past.
I’ve never been in a war; I’ve never served in any army; I didn’t even grow up in a military family. But war and its human element have always loomed in the background, both informing the history of the world around me and shaping what comes next.
At least one of my great grandfathers served in World War I, a war now nearly a century old that America barely remembers. But it was this war, the “War to End All Wars”, that brought us the 11/11 Armistice Day.
My grandfathers both volunteered during World War II back in the 1940s — the last time the US was on a “total war” footing. My father’s father served in Europe as an Army supply sergeant, and my mother’s father, too young for the Navy, joined the Merchant Marine and helped with trans-Atlantic shipping. They worked hard for their country, and the work they did on the supply lines helped keep front-line soldiers alive and fighting against the Nazis.
As we get closer to the present, America’s wars have gotten smaller, and fewer people have been directly involved on “our” side. My father was in university during Vietnam, so avoided the draft and instead had great learning and job opportunities here at home. War became something remote and theoretical to our family.
When I was a child, Vietnam was over, the draft had been abandoned, but the Cold War was still alive and well; we were more worried about mutual nuclear annihilation with the Soviet Union than conventional war. It almost seemed an anachronism that we had two Marine Corps air bases nearby (MCAS Tustin and MCAS El Toro, which put on a wonderful air show every year for the kids). Tanks and missiles and machine guns and attack helicopters were “cool” things you mostly saw in movies and video games.
But real wars kept happening, even if they weren’t quite as globe-spanning, and real people were still living and dying in them.
Desert Shield / Desert Storm brought active war into focus for me when I was about 12. I didn’t know anybody directly in the military, but I knew they were real people — a lot of people and equipment shipped out from the local bases, and the news would report on casualties from the local area.
One of my most vivid memories from Desert Storm was reading a newspaper account of a friendly fire incident in which a member of a tank crew was decapitated. I’ve seen far more gruesome things simulated in movies and for real in pictures on the internet (unfortunately), but the shock of a 12-year old reading about a soldier suddenly finding himself holding his crewmate’s lifeless head will never quite fade.
“My” generation’s war didn’t come until 9/11 sparked a US invasion of Afghanistan, followed later by another Iraq invasion. There was no longer a draft, but like my father during Vietnam I was old enough I could have served, but chose instead to stick with university and a career.
I don’t like the idea of war. I hate the idea of people being hurt, displaced, killed, or losing loved ones. But war is a real thing that’s part of the human condition, and for better or worse we have to have people who get involved in them to try to bring the fighting to a close.
Anyway, I’m not really sure I had a point. But please, if you have the day off today, spend some time thinking about the people who go off to war, whether deliberately as soldiers or with no choice as noncombatants, who never come back. And the ones that do come back, often don’t come back the same.
Think about this when you make decisions about your life.