Today is one of our three great patriotic holidays in the US, and an important one throughout the English-speaking countries. Here it was originally Armistice Day, not Veterans Day, but elsewhere it is Remembrance Day. It seems like a straightforward enough holiday, a day to remember those who sacrificed and served their countries in war, particularly the First World War, but like so much else that is patriotic, there are layers to it, and forgetting those layers, particularly in the present environment, where we are being told it is wrong to criticize generals, ignoring those layers seems as wrong as it would be if we suddenly decided to demonize all veterans,
To begin with there is the choice of the day. For 98 years now, there have been commemorations of the Armistice. We think of it as the end of World War One, but of course it simply marked the cessation of fighting on the Western Front. The Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and the Soviets were all already out of the War, while fighting continued for a few more days in Africa. What it did not do was end the War. That ended in June, and it was far from a formality. The Allied blockade continued unmodified until mid-January, was certainly still causing starvation in March, and was not fully lifted until the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919. The numbers are unclear, but more than 100,000 Germans starved to death (probably several times that number) and many more were weakened during the worst pandemic of the century. Even after all that, the civil wars, Allied interventions, and smaller international wars in Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean continued for a few more years.
To forget all of that on Armistice/Veterans/Remembrance Day is something that should not be done. To do so is to engage in a kind of moral sleight of hand with the past.
But that brings us to the other issue we need to consider. While we can all wish our veterans the best and thank them for their service and sacrifice, we cannot let the military (or its associated industrial complex) off the hook. In fact, I would suggest that to let the military have this as a day of reverence without questioning is a disservice to our fallen, our veterans, and to the very ideals of Anglo-American democracy. It is one thing to look to the individual deeds and privations of veterans and admire them; it is quite different to argue that the wars and actions of the military and the corporations that support it are equally deserving. It is to accept that there have never been atrocities committed by our troops (which also raises the very difficult question of how we should treat those who perpetrated or knew of them but remained silent - a question that troubles me given my grandfather's service in the Philippine Insurrection where many atrocities were committed by US forces), that all of our wars have been just, that the decisions made by our commanders have been good, or that companies have never betrayed the trust of the men and women they equipped with shoddy goods or weapons (shoddy in fact is the name of a material from the US Civil War that some contractors used in supplying uniforms - it was notorious for falling apart in the rain). We cannot and should not let the military off the hook, not even for a single day.
What civilians owe to today's veterans is not a polite "thank you for your service," but constant vigilance to ensure that their needs are met during and after their service, that their equipment is reliable and appropriate, and that the wars and campaigns in which they fight are both necessary and just (or at least legal). What we all owe those who are no longer with us is to understand what they went through in context and to see that their sacrifices are not betrayed today.
So thank you, I hope we will always remember, never forget, and not fail to get watch your back.