We take pause this week and put pen to paper to honor and remember our nation’s veterans, including the many casualties of two centuries of wars and the several million living veterans who will no doubt also take a few extra minutes for quiet pause and personal remembrances.
This Thursday, Nov. 11, is Veterans Day, originally celebrated 104 years ago as Armistice Day, that marked the end to armed hostilities and World War I. America’s veterans have served during many different eras, fought against diverse foes, wore various uniforms and held countless roles and duties as volunteers, professionals, conscripted and drafted soldiers. The U.S. military of today could hardly be different from the original Continental Army of 1775. There are 1.3 million uniformed and active personnel and a total of 2 million men and women including reserves, National Guard and others.
Through the first half of our nation’s history, roughly ending just after World War I in 1918, our soldiers and veterans fought in classic battles with muskets, rifles, bayonets and canons. Through the second half of our history, America’s wars have become mechanized and fought at sea and in the air and not just in trenches or forts.
A young America and its soldiers fought a war of independence, a bloody civil war and a series of battles and skirmishes to defend the growing borders of an expanding United States. Since World War I, called both the Great War and the “war to end all wars,” our soldiers and veterans have fought in multi-nation wars, simultaneously on multiple fronts against multiple enemies. Most of our modern wars have been about geopolitics, international supremacy and foreign wars without official declarations by our own government.
Since the Revolutionary War of 1776, the tally of killed soldiers and silenced veterans has reached 1,354,929. Our own Civil War was the bloodiest with 655,000 Union and Confederate soldier deaths. World War I was the most gruesome with trench warfare fought without international conventions when poisonous gases were used and the first mechanized, rapid-fire guns were deployed. The global war of 1939-1945 (World War II) has been our deadliest, with 405,000 counted U.S. soldier deaths. Women have fought in our wars since the Revolutionary War. Today, our uniformed ranks include more than 300,000 women. There have been more than 1,000 women killed in active combat since World War II, according to Veterans Affairs.
Today’s ranks of veterans, some gathering this week at various local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts, are all from our more modern wars with only a small handful of World War II veterans still alive. It’s not a bad thing to have fewer veterans if that means we’ve had fewer wars and less war casualties. But as we mark another Veterans Day, we look to our local VFW posts to lead our remembrances and maintain our traditions of honoring the ultimate sacrifice of so many and revering our veterans while leading our community-wide prayers for peace.
Among local Veterans Day events this year in Sonoma County is the Nov. 11 Petaluma Veterans Day Parade, this year with the theme “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans.” Graveside and other memorial gatherings are being hosted by Cloverdale’s William Ledford VFW Post 293, the Gold Ridge VFW Post in Sebastopol and the VFW Sotoyome Post of Healdsburg-Windsor. The ranks of active membership at these VFW posts are getting low and there is now only a single VFW post in San Francisco, Post 4618.
In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower officially changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. The change was not a subtle one. Armistice means the suspension of hostilities, the laying down of arms. The decades of Veterans Days since that time have been celebrated with speeches and trappings of patriotism rather than with words of peace. We’d like to see a Veterans Day without any guns or weapons present, maybe not even a 21-gun salute. We’ve gone from hopes for a “war to end all wars,” to unending wars, a tragic chain with links from Vietnam to Desert Storm, to Iraq, to Afghanistan and where next?