Some years ago a friend of mine published a book on the lead-up to the Second World War and, as a result, was scheduled to be interviewed on one of the now-ubiquitous cable networks on the anniversary of the Normandy invasion. As luck would have it, however, the interview was canceled as a result of some now-forgotten “breaking” news.
When he called the producer back a few days later to see if it might be rescheduled, the young lady (whom he later said had to be “at least 14”) informed him that she didn’t think so because “no one is really interested in World War II. We just scheduled it originally because of the anniversary.”
My friend’s exchange with the young cable producer came back to me when I opened Monday’s Washington Post to a front-page photograph of Frank Buckles, one of only three known living U.S. veterans not of World War II, but of World War I. That war — the “Great War” as it has been known since — marked this nation’s emergence as a dominant world power and set the stage for the conflict the young lady was so convinced “no one really cares about,” but is, like so many conflicts of the past, all but forgotten by Americans today.
Veterans Day was, of course, originally known as Armistice Day to commemorate the agreement that ended the Great War on Nov. 11 of 1918 and to honor the literally millions who died in Europe in the four horrible years preceding the armistice. It was that conflict that, directly or indirectly, gave the 20th century Hitler, the Soviet Empire and even the muddled Middle East in which our troops are mired today.
The young men who answered the call to arms back then didn’t know any of this, of course, any more than the leaders here and in Europe who issued the call. They were fighting what they were told was a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” and their sacrifices were as great as those of the colonists who fought the British to create this country, those who fought to preserve it in the 1860s and those who responded later to Hitler and the threats to the nation that have followed.
We may not remember precisely where they fought or the names of battles and battlefields familiar to our parents and grandparents, but we owe it to them and to ourselves to remember that we and the nation in which we live are what we are today because they donned the uniform of this country and all too often died in faraway lands for all of us.
Those who read this column regularly know how proud I am of my own daughter, who signed up after Sept. 11, served a year in Iraq, made it back safely after a few harrowing scrapes over there and is now finishing college in Ohio. She called me last week to tell me that she’s decided to re-enlist because, I think, she believes that’s how she can best honor those she served with in her earlier tour of duty.
Veterans Day should never be allowed to become just “another” federal holiday. It’s her day and the day of members of her generation who have stepped forward as needed, but it is also a day when Americans should remember that we are what we are today because of the sacrifices of millions long dead who made the ultimate sacrifice and deserve to be remembered for doing so.
Birdsong, a novel about the Great War written some years back by Sebastian Faulks, is worth reading today. It involves, in part, the search by Elizabeth, a young British girl of the ’70s, for the story of her grandfather’s service in that war, about which she knew almost nothing.
At one point, after learning of the horrors of what he and his generation went through in a war no one of her generation was really interested in, she finds herself in France before a monument in a field on which are inscribed thousands of names:
“She found a caretaker and asked, ‘Who are these, these …’
“ ‘These?’ The man sounded surprised, ‘The lost.’
“ ‘Men who died in this battle?’
“ ‘No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the cemeteries.’
“When she could speak again, she said, ‘From the whole war?’
“The man shook his head, ‘Just these fields.’
“Elizabeth … sat on the steps [and said,] ‘Nobody told me. … My God, nobody told me.’ ”
We observe Veterans Day in large part so that Americans will never have to say that about the men and women who sacrificed everything for us.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com