“The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, honor, country.
This does not mean that you are warmongers. On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished – tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dream of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.
In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, honor, country.”
— General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, at the U.S. Military Academy, May 12, 1962
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The year was 1918, and an armistice was signed that ended the Great War, “the war to end all wars.” We know it now as World War I and it, of course, did not end all wars, or even all great ones.
For many years, November 11th was observed in America as Armistice Day, though in the 1970s Congress changed it to the fourth Monday in October. That lasted for only a few years before it was changed back again to November 11th. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed legislation changing the name of this federal holiday to “Veterans Day,” a day to honor all who have served in all of America’s wars.
It is no accident that those who served their country in uniform are esteemed by their fellow citizens to a degree far greater than those who now serve in better paid, safer and more prestigious positions in Congress and in the executive branch. There is a general and well-established recognition that, with very few exceptions, the men and women who have fought for their country have done so with valor and virtue. Few would attribute such steadfastness to the civilian branches that sent them to war and all too often pulled the plug on them when it served their political interest to do so.
In the years since World War II (the last “good war”) returning veterans have not always been afforded the welcome home they earned and deserved. This was particularly true after Vietnam.
There are welcome signs this is changing now.
And it’s about time.