Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
November 10, 2009
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
How many died for that bit of poetry?
At 11 o’clock on Nov. 11, 1918, fighting ended in World War I. That was a full six hours and many hundreds of deaths after the armistice was signed.
Many have debated long and hard whether the cease-fire was delayed hours for poetic reasons. Perhaps not, but certainly men were dying for no good reason right up to the very last minute of the war. And, whether intentional or not, that bit of poetry – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – was honored with Armistice Day, to commemorate the end of that “war to end all wars.”
Today, November 11, we celebrate Veterans Day, which evolved from Armistice Day as a day to remember and to honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces of this country.
It is an honor that they richly deserve.
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Difficult though it may be, let me for this moment put aside politics. Never mind left or right, this war or that war, reasons and excuses, accusations and justifications – today we must focus on the men and women we are honoring.
We owe our very existence as a nation to those men who fought in the Revolutionary War. And, skipping forward almost a century, we owe our continued existence just as much to the men who fought to preserve our nation in the Civil War.
And we owe our continued liberties to the men and women who have fought – and too often died – in wars large and small throughout our nation’s history.
Certainly, we need to honor those who died, those who were wounded and all those who fought. And just as certainly, we need to acknowledge those who served without going into battle, even those who served in times of peace, because they accepted the obligation to put their lives in danger if ordered to do so.
Still, that said, I cannot avoid the feeling that those who have served in combat deserve an immense extra measure of our gratitude.
Those who, like me, have never served cannot begin to imagine the horror of combat. The soldiers who find the courage to face death time and again, to face death having seen its horrors first hand, know reserves of strength that the rest of us can only imagine.
We as a nation owe them our thanks, even though we hear time and again that they didn’t do it for us; they didn’t do it for “our country” or “our flag.” Again and again, we hear combat veterans say that they fought for their comrades, those who were fighting beside them.
They may have enlisted for higher reasons – patriotism or honor – and they may have gone into battle for the simple reason that, once in the military, you have no choice. But when facing the terrible reality of combat, the carnage of the battlefield, it seems that soldiers fight because they cannot let their comrades down.
During the Vietnam War it was fashionable to heap scorn on returning veterans. I have seen enough photos to be certain that raging hatred of men in uniform was common.
That was a disgrace.
I know that terrible things were done by some (certainly a very small percentage) of those who fought in Vietnam. But even then, it was the war that was to blame, not the fallible men who, under unendurable pressure, failed.
We owed those men our thanks for their sacrifice and service – and we owed them our best efforts at making them whole again.
Now, thankfully, at least part of that lesson has been learned. Despite the controversy surrounding the Iraq War, no one has been blaming returning veterans for what may have happened on the battlefield. Our nation’s honor, however, will be put to the test for years to come as we try to live up to the rest of our obligation: healing the wounds, physical and mental, our soldiers have suffered.
Some say “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Perhaps we might also say, “Hate the war, honor the warrior.”
I have learned much about this from my wife’s family.
My wife comes from a family of warriors. They have served for generation after generation. Her father flew fighters for the Navy during the Korean War. Her uncles were colonels in the Army. One of her grandfathers was a general in World War II. A great grandfather fought Indians with the U.S. Cavalry in the New Mexico Territory. A cousin served several tours of duty in Iraq.
My family could not be more different.
No one from my family in my generation has served in the military. In my parents’ generation, of course, every able-bodied man served in the World War, but none of them served one minute longer than necessary.
I often differ politically with those warriors from my wife’s family. That’s hardly surprising. But those whom I know are all solid, strong and honorable. And I am proud that our two very different families are joined through my marriage.
Although I probably won’t call them up today to thank them personally for their service, I know I owe them thanks – along with the gratitude we all owe to those countless thousands upon thousands who have served this nation through the centuries.
We owe them our thanks, our gratitude and our support.
And we owe the generations of warriors yet to come one more thing. We owe them our firm pledge never to send them off to face death for pointless, frivolous politics. And to never let them die for poetic reasons.
Our nation’s honor demands that.
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