The Tie That Binds: Reflections on Veterans Day

By: MAJ Anthony F. Heisler, US Army Special Forces

The month of November is host to the US federal holiday called Veterans Day.1 The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month marked the official start of the armistice that brought the First World War to a close, but in 1954, Armistice Day in the United States was renamed and repurposed to recognize all veterans of US wars.2 Memorial Day is another US holiday that is synonymous with military service to the nation. Although the two days are different in meaning and purpose, they are often referred to interchangeably—most often by those who do not know what the holidays represent and usually to the consternation of those who do. Beyond the literal meaning and purpose of these two days, however, I believe there is a deeper purpose that is often entirely overlooked, but that should, in fact, be accounted for above most others. These two holidays provide a very real opportunity to examine the bond between military personnel who serve the Republic and the non-military citizenry, a bond that is a privilege in the truest sense of the word and that is in need of some maintenance. To begin, it is worth clarifying the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Veterans Day is intended to be a day of recognition, whereas Memorial Day is a somber day of remembrance.
 

Looking Back

Veterans Day is intended to be a day of recognition, whereas Memorial Day is a somber day of remembrance. Memorial Day, observed annually in late May, is the holiday with the longer tradition and grew out of a custom of decorating the graves of those who died in the US Civil War in the years following the conflict that divided the nation.3 Veterans Day emerged from the day when the world marked the official end of World War I. Both holidays matured over time and grew to take on larger meanings: Memorial Day came to include the war dead from all US conflicts, while Veterans Day now recognizes not only veterans of all US wars, but all US military veterans, regardless of whether they served in peacetime or wartime.

Many Americans enjoy a day off from work on these two federal holidays. The three-day-long Memorial Day weekend in particular is often associated with travel deals and sales on appliances. It also marks the unofficial start of summer for Americans. Most of the public outreach from veterans' organizations with regard to both holidays is intended to educate citizens on the meaning of the two days: namely, that Veterans Day is a day of appreciation for the armed services, and Memorial Day is a day devoted to the memory of those in uniform who have sacrificed their lives for the nation.

The three-day-long Memorial Day weekend in particular is often associated with travel deals and sales on appliances. It also marks the unofficial start of summer.
 

These are noteworthy distinctions, and the efforts to educate citizens on the differences are important, but there is something else that is being missed here. As a veteran of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I personally knew a number of people who were killed in each of those places. I have to admit that it was thus a little disconcerting to hear someone wish me "Happy Memorial Day!" at the conclusion of a Memorial Day service this past May. This was my first Memorial Day back home in the United States in four years, and although I was not surprised at the juxtaposition of happy and memorial, having heard it countless times on television, I was still taken aback by the comment in that time and place. The distance I felt between my personal reality, which has been informed by 10 years of wartime service, and the reality of the well-intentioned, but uninformed, passerby became the initial inspiration for this essay. The uncertainty I felt when considering how to react reflected something larger than the fact that someone did not know the meaning of a holiday, but at that time, I did not understand what it was. An unexpected series of questions from a fellow officer from Europe helped me put my finger on it.

In the week following Memorial Day, a NATO colleague of mine approached me between classes at the US Naval Postgraduate School. He had a number of questions about the affinity between the US military and the American people, how it came to be, and how it is maintained. Given the disconnect I had experienced on the street days before, I was intrigued by his inquiry and observations. The purpose behind his questions was to identify ways that his own military might be able to kindle a similar relationship with the civilian citizens of his nation. He noted the welcomed presence of US military units in parades on national holidays, the regular displays of military appreciation during professional sporting events, and anything and everything to do with NASCAR—again, his observation, not mine.4 My personal experience following the previous week's Memorial Day service and the observations of my allied counterpart combined to shed light on the larger issue that I had previously been unable to identify.5

My NATO colleague's comments illuminated the fact that this essential relationship is a privilege in the truest sense of the word.
 

Although Veterans Day and Memorial Day are observed for specific reasons, they are purposed to a larger cause. They serve a critical function in maintaining the delicate—and absolutely essential—tether between the uniformed military personnel who serve to defend the nation and the civilian citizens who comprise the rest of the nation—the People. But the apparent disconnect between me and that passerby has given me cause to question the health and status of that relationship. On closer consideration, it further occurred to me that it is the responsibility of both parties, civilians and service members, to maintain it. Finally, my NATO colleague's comments illuminated the fact that this essential relationship is a privilege in the truest sense of the word—not many nations enjoy these bonds to the degree that we do in the United States, if they enjoy them at all.

Infantry company of Sherman's veterans.
American troops walking along a road during World War I.

My father is quick to remind me that the closeness that the US military enjoys with the population today—as the NATO officer who spoke with me observed—is not the way it's always been. He is alluding to the military's uncertain reception at home after returning from the Vietnam War. But the delicate relationship between the military and the civilian population goes back much further than that. Since the nation's earliest days, the civil-military relationship in the United States has been tenuous at times. James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, was an outspoken critic of having a standing professional military.6 Samuel Adams, a name synonymous with early American patriotism, was equally concerned with the potential danger that a standing military posed to the state and warned that such a body "should be watched with a jealous Eye." 7 There have, however, been previous high points in this relationship, as well. Take, for example, the unity of purpose shared by the military and civilians during and at the conclusion of World War II.

Conscription served to create a dense and diverse network of veterans from all walks of life connected through their service to the nation.
 

To a degree, the current positive state of this relationship is the response to the post-Vietnam low—a positive backlash, if you will. This upswing during the last decade of war is in part supported by tens of thousands of veterans—from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the periods in between—who remember very vividly the lows in civil-military relations post-Vietnam and who are now themselves civilians. With the exception of Desert Storm, the military drafted civilians into service to increase its ranks during those earlier conflicts, cutting across American social strata to build a force that was, in many ways, more socially diverse and integrated than the society that it sought to protect back home. Conscription also served to create a dense and diverse network of veterans from all walks of life connected through their service to the nation—a powerful force for civil-military integration. As these veterans pass on, however, so too will the painful lessons learned during that post-Vietnam low. And as the latent veteran support base that has played such a key role in maintaining the link between civilians and the military shrinks, so too will our access to the vivid memories that these veterans carry. Already we can see them fading slowly from our collective memory to the black-and-white pages of history books.

Looking forward, the current veterans of the all-volunteer force who reenter civilian life after their time in service are a mere fraction of those who did so during periods of conscription. Since 9/11, only 0.5 percent of the US population

Victorious Marines parade in France following the end of World War I.
Civil War veterans, Fourth of July or Decoration Day,Ortonville, Minnesota,1880.
 
 

has served in the military.8 The question this fact poses is immediately apparent: how does less than one percent of a population maintain a connection with the other 99.5 percent?9 As time goes on, this question will increase in importance, as will the urgent need for an answer. At its heart, this relationship is a two-way street of trust. From the military to the civilian population, it entails a promise and commitment to support and defend the Constitution and the nation against all enemies. From the country's civilians to its military, it is an acknowledgement and understanding of the cost of misusing military power, and a commitment to support the armed forces through the power of the people's voice and vote.

 

My concern is that most Americans are not even thinking about the relationship between the military and the people.
 

My concern is that most Americans are not even thinking about the relationship between the military and the people. That point was affirmed for me personally in a small way following the Memorial Day service I referred to earlier. After 10 years of service, I venture to say that most members of the military can be equally insensitive to this bond. I know I was. Over the years, there have been a number of reasons why I brushed off thinking about the topic myself. The primary reason is that I have never had to think about it; during my time in uniform, it appeared to me that the civil-military relationship was, for the most part, great. I was the recipient of all the accolades and support that my NATO colleague noted (leaving aside NASCAR). Another reason is that I have been busy; more than a decade of conflict has left the US armed services stretched thin, and has kept servicemen and -women in a continuous cycle of combat or training for combat. There simply hasn't been a lot of time to concern myself with civil-military relations. The third reason may be the result of responsibility diffusion; I simply assumed someone else was taking care of it. To a large degree, someone was: the media have been supportive of individuals in uniform during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; citizens on the street often stop to thank the service members they meet; and the large body of veterans has been working tirelessly to support the troops and maintain the bond. But what happens next?

African American soldiers return home, 1917.
Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, 1978.
Disabled veteran, ca. 1943.
What will change as the US military continues to draw down, a process that will further decrease the proportion of those in military service?
 

What will become of civil-military relations when the war in Afghanistan comes to a close, and the public face of what was once called the Global War on Terror moves to the background of our collective social consciousness? What will change as the US military continues to draw down, a process that will further decrease the proportion of those in military service to the overall population? These shifts have the potential to further decrease public attention to and awareness of both the military as an institution and the men and women in uniform. I think this point becomes of increasing concern as the number of veterans who provide the critical bridge between citizens in uniform and their civilian counterparts decreases over time.

Is this much ado about nothing? Perhaps. It is highly unlikely that the notably strong relationship between US military personnel and the rest of the United States will be damaged irreparably, but it is not impossible either—such a situation occurred in the home country of my NATO counterpart. At this time, it also appears unlikely that the media will change its generally favorable coverage of the uniformed services. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a notable distinction in media coverage between the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who were fighting the wars, and the policies that sent them there.10 When bad things did occur, such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq and the Robert Bales incident in Afghanistan, the media's scrutiny focused on the individuals and chains of command involved, without vilifying everyone else serving in the war zone.11 By contrast, media coverage that came out of Vietnam too often overlooked the individual soldiers, or lumped them in with the larger problems of that difficult war, and thus gave the public the impression that soldiers were part, or even a cause, of the problems.

The American military, news media, policy makers, and people learned a lot about the importance of the civilmilitary relationship from the Vietnam experience.
 

The American military, news media, policy makers, and people learned a lot about the importance of the civil-military relationship from the Vietnam experience. The new and dynamic forms of conflict emerging today, as typified by current events in Iraq and Syria, may nevertheless require learning new lessons. Difficult policy choices made in highly volatile conflicts are being complicated even further by instant, unfiltered global communications. Access to unverified stories across the internet could put the public's image of its soldiers in jeopardy once more. Finally, it is true that the nation's veterans will not vanish overnight, but the fact is that the veteran base is not likely to be infused with the large numbers that came out of the Second World War and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

The point is this: the odds of a serious disconnect between the military and the rest of the country may be low, but the stakes are high.
 

The point is this: the odds of a serious disconnect between the military and the rest of the country may be low, but the stakes are high. Trust is what is at stake, and trust is one of the hardest things to earn but among the easiest to spend. The current supportive relationship between the US military and civilians has been hard-earned over generations. The concerns voiced by Madison and Adams illustrate the distrust of military power that existed when the United States was founded. It is easy to take the status quo for granted and assume that the current good relationship will remain positive indefinitely, but history has shown us that the civil-military relationship is like any other: to be successful, it requires the active participation of both partners and the ability of each to trust the other.

Moving Forward

I am glad that the person who wished me a happy Memorial Day was enjoying the holiday and celebrating the freedom that I and my comrades-in-arms have helped to protect through our service; but at the same time, it was apparent that they were not giving any thought to the sacrifices that the day commemorated. They were not holding up their end of the relationship—but the fact is, neither was I. All I managed to mutter in response as I kept walking was "Thanks, you too."

Like any relationship, maintaining this connection between the armed services and civil society demands effort from both sides.
 

Like any relationship, maintaining this connection between the armed services and civil society demands effort from both sides. It also takes communication—some form of dialogue. In retrospect, I should have stopped and politely reminded that well-wisher of the actual meaning of the holiday, and of the nature of the relationship between those who are protected and those who protect. That would have been holding up my end of the bargain. The thought, however, never even occurred to me, because I do not normally speak out like that. Like I said, prior to this experience, I had never really given any thought to civil-military relations here at home, let alone my responsibility in helping to maintain that relationship. Until now, I thought that simply putting on my uniform and doing my job was sufficient. I don't know if that is the case anymore.

To be truthful, it is easier to just go about my business than it is to talk to people about what I do and why I do it. There have been times when I have avoided getting into discussions with civilians about military service because, to use a cliché, "they just don't get it." The list of people who don't get it has even included some members of my family. I don't expect my civilian counterparts to empathize with the intimate details of firefights or what it's like to be in the middle of a battlefield. But I am concerned about their inability to grasp the bigger picture: the dynamics of the type of warfare we are engaged in today; how sound bites on the news do not capture the whole picture of war; or simply the ins and outs of serving in the military today. At times, I have found myself frustrated by people—both strangers and people I've known my whole life—who have formed staunch opinions from those short news clips, or who simply cannot understand what life is like for those in uniform. After talking with my colleagues about these concerns, I suspect that I am not the only one in uniform who has experienced these frustrations. What I have since come to realize, and what I want to say to my fellow service members, is that bottling up that frustration and just walking away is doing nothing to solve the problem. It is certainly doing nothing to maintain the larger relationship.

The conversation may be as simple as setting the record straight on the meaning of a holiday deeply connected to your profession.
 

Communication, it is worth repeating, is critical to positive civil-military relations in a democracy. Dialogue between citizens who wear civilian clothes and those who put on a uniform will continue to be essential going forward. For military personnel, this dialogue may occur when you least expect it—perhaps on the street right after a Memorial Day service or a Veterans Day ceremony. The conversation may be as simple as setting the record straight on the meaning of a holiday deeply connected to your profession. It is equally important for active-duty service members and reservists to reach out and extend that dialogue to veterans, because our predecessors in uniform are the most active bridge between civilians and the armed forces. What is more, they've walked a mile in our shoes, and we'll spend the rest of our lives walking in theirs.

Closing Thoughts

The message of this essay is universal to all democracies that maintain armed forces for national defense.
 

Although I've written specifically about the United States and its military, the message of this essay is universal to all democracies that maintain armed forces for national defense. The nature of the relationship between the military and the civilian citizenry is a concern shared by most countries of the world. Holidays that commemorate the service and sacrifices of a nation's military personnel offer all of that nation's citizens—those in civilian clothes and those in uniform—a rare and welcome opportunity to come together in the same time and space and perhaps, in a very small yet very meaningful way, contribute to the vital mutual commitment each makes to honor and defend the other.

If you should happen to find yourself sitting around the house on the last Monday in May or the 11th of November, it might be worth checking out a service or ceremony.
 

For service members from other countries who find themselves in the United States on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, I invite you to attend a local service or ceremony. You will have a firsthand opportunity to peer a little deeper into an important aspect of American culture. You may also have the chance to examine the connective tissue that binds our military with our civilian population and gain a little insight into a corner of our national psyche that often goes unobserved by outsiders and even, sometimes, by ourselves.

Finally, there is something to be said about presence—about being there. I know that there is no standard duty day in the military, and when a long weekend comes, most of us hit the road without looking back. But if you should happen to find yourself sitting around the house on the last Monday in May or the 11th of November, it might be worth checking out a service or ceremony in your area. Not only is it good civics, but showing our face in the community—a smile, a handshake, a conversation—will go a long way toward maintaining the connection between the 0.5 percent and the 99.5 percent.

About the Author(s):

MAJ Anthony F. Heisler is a US Army Special Forces officer who is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Defense Analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School.


NOTES:
  1. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the US Naval Postgraduate School, the US Department of Defense, the US government, or any other official entity. 
  2. Proclamation 3071, 19 Fed. Reg. 198 (12 October 1954): http://www.va.gov/opa/vetday/docs/proclamation_1954.pdf  
  3. "Memorial Day History," US Department of Veterans Affairs, n.d.: http://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/history.asp
  4. NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The sport, which organized in the years following World War II, is considered quintessentially American and is popularly associated with a patriotic, "heartland" ethos and a working-class demographic.
  5. I want to thank my European colleague and brother-in-arms, who helped me put my own thoughts into context. I hope you find the results of my effort worthwhile. 
  6. James Madison, "The Federalist No. 46: The Influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared," New York Packet, 29 January 1788: http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa46.htm 
  7. "Letter to James Warren (1776)," Samuel Adams Heritage Society, n.d.: http://www.samuel-adams-heritage.com/documents/samuel-adams-to-james-warren-1776.html 
  8. Russell Heimlich, "Small Share of Americans in Active Military Duty," Pew Research Center, 23 May 2012: http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/small-share-of-americans-in-active-military-duty/ 
  9. Ibid.
  10. Author's personal observation during 10 years of active-duty service and combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. 
  11. Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was the site of incidents of serious prisoner abuse by US soldiers in 2003 and 2004, during the US occupation. See the New York Times archive on Abu Ghraib: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/iraq/abu_ghraib/index.html . In 2012, US Army Sergeant Robert Bales deliberately murdered 16 sleeping Afghan villagers in an act called one of the worst atrocities of the war. See the archive of news stories at Military.com: http://www.military.com/topics/robert-bales  
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