It was the war to end all wars, marked by trench warfare and devastating new weapons that resulted in appalling casualties and millions of dead. The Great War ended when an armistice took effect on November 11, 1918 – on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as a generation now mostly gone would always remember. A year later, to mark the end of this great international tragedy – later renamed World War I because there would be, in fact, another, greater war – the first Armistice Day was proclaimed by President Woodrow Woodrow and for the first time observed on November 11, 1919, the same year in which the armistice, or temporary cease-fire, was replaced by the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles. The day itself would be set aside for reflection and rededication; all activities would cease for two minutes. At 11 A.M., parades would commence, flags would be flown.
That special annual occasion, created 96 years ago, is now known as Veterans Day. How it changed from the memorial to the sacrifices of one horrendous conflict to an appreciation of all the country’s veterans is a story in itself. By the second anniversary of the armistice in 1920, Britain and France had each created a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey in London, and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, to commemorate their war dead. President Wilson, acting not only to honor the fallen but also perhaps to promote his vision of world peace, declared the Sunday nearest November 11 to be Armistice Day Sunday.
In 1921, Congress approved the establishment of a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, based on the British and French precedents. The Unknown Soldier was chosen by Sergeant Edward F. Younger from four unidentified remains disinterred from American cemeteries in France. The body lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol, and President Warren G. Harding ordered that the flag be flown at half-mast from sunrise to sunset. At exactly 11 A.M. on November 11, the casket was lowered to its final honored resting place. Over the years, Unknown Soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as well as other conflicts have been placed in the Tomb, all at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge issued a proclamation authorizing the display of the flag on all government buildings on Armistice Day, but it was not until 1938 – perhaps not so coincidentally the same year as the infamous Munich Agreement between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler and the annexation of Austria and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany – that November 11 was declared a Federal holiday “dedicated to the cause of world peace” and many states followed suit. For sixteen years, the day was observed very much like the first Armistice Day in 1919, with parades, memorial services, flag displays and ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.
But more wars produce more veterans, and by 1954, a need had developed to recognize the servicemen and women who had fought in other conflicts. By an Act of Congress in June, 1954, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans’ Day, and on November 8 of that year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed November 11 a day to “solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores to preserve our heritage and freedom.”
Every year we note the approach and passing of the day that honors the veterans of all our wars, but that tradition, like many, may seem to have little relevance to these hectic, uncertain times. However, a simple truth, should, like the veterans themselves, never be forgotten.
Ceremonies and memorials that pay tribute to the fallen are not only for them; they are also for us so we can be rejoined to our own past, and it’s a reminder that for those who fight our nation’s battles and for their families as well, the trauma of armed conflict is never really over, and is often re-lived for years to come.
Unfortunately, the end of wars is nowhere in sight, since they have occurred as long as history has been recorded, and possibly before. Over time, we have developed more effective ways of killing more people, underscoring one of the major flaws of humankind, reminding us that neither our species nor our world is perfect.
Here in America, progress has been made toward a more humane and caring society, but far more needs to be done. Justice is often denied, cooperation is often replaced by division, and equality seems more elusive than ever – even the animals we mistreat and cause to suffer offer strong witness about the kind of people we are and the values we hold.
As we fly our nation’s flag with care and respect this November 11, let us remember that it symbolizes the hopes and sacrifices of countless individuals who secured the future for us often at the expense of their own. It also tells us that the mission of our country is not yet fulfilled, the journey not yet complete, the promises still unkept.
The flag is far more than color and cloth. It represents our wishes, our expectations, even our dreams of what this country of ours still has the possibility to become – a place of fairness and compassion and kindness for all who live here, all who call this land home.