When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today. Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Division at Kohima.
When I was a boy in grade school we used to have a program in school whenever Veteran’s Day fell on a school day. There would be a speech and three veterans, one from World War I, one from World War II and one from the Korean War, would form an honor guard. I can’t recall any of the speeches, but I can clearly recall the faces of the veterans. They were always the same three men, and they would stand rigidly at attention throughout the speech. Their silent witness spoke more eloquently to me than any words could.
We honor veterans because of their willingness to die for us if need be during their military service. All men fear death, but veterans had to put that fear aside during their period of service. Even if they served in peace time or in a safe billet, the possibility of death, usually at a very young age was always a possibility. This is enough of a reason to honor veterans.
Additionally, we can hope that the sacrifices that veterans make will ultimately lead to a better world. Rossiter Johnson in 1884 noted that while we celebrate the courage of our veterans there are other lessons to be drawn from war if we have the wit to discern them and to teach them to the young. I think the lessons of the Civil War were learned by the nation, at least we haven’t had another such fratricidal conflict:
It is poor business measuring the mouldered ramparts and counting the silent guns, marking the deserted battlefields and decorating the grassy graves, unless we can learn from it some nobler lesson than to destroy. Men write of this, as of other wars, as if the only thing necessary to be impressed upon the rising generation were the virtue of physical courage and contempt of death. It seems to me that is the last thing we need to teach; for since the days of John Smith in Virginia and the men of the Mayflower in Massachusetts, no generation of Americans has shown any lack of it. From Louisburg to Petersburg-a hundred and twenty years, the full span of four generations-they have stood to their guns and been shot down in greater comparative numbers than any other race on earth. In the war of secession there was not a State, not a county, probably not a town, between the great lakes and the gulf, that was not represented on fields where all that men could do with powder and steel was done and valor exhibited at its highest pitch…There is not the slightest necessity for lauding American bravery or impressing it upon American youth. But there is the gravest necessity for teaching them respect for law, and reverence for human life, and regard for the rights of their fellow country-men, and all that is significant in the history of our country…These are simple lessons, yet they are not taught in a day, and some who we call educated go through life without mastering them at all.
Rossiter Johnson, Campfire and Battlefield, 1884
One can hope that some day the scourge of war will be relegated to the history books. Until that time we honor the Veterans who were called upon once in their lives to perhaps part with life itself, if need be, for the rest of us.