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
We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, God permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame.
CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters
Sometimes simple questions can help illuminate great truths. Why do we honor veterans?
Today is Veterans Day. Ironically, many veterans will be working today as the “holiday” is mostly one solely for government workers, and most veterans in the private sector will be on the job today. Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day and was observed to recall the ending of that conflict on November 11, 1918 and to honor the American veterans who served in it. After World War II, veterans of World War I, many of whom had sons who served in World War II, spearheaded a move to change the name to Veterans Day to honor all Veterans. Legislation changing the name of the holiday was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower on May 26, 1954. All well and good, but why do we set this day aside to honor those who have served in the military?
One veteran of World War I, CS Lewis, perhaps can help us understand why we honor veterans. Lewis served on the Western Front as a Second Lieutenant in 1917-1918 until he was wounded on April 15, 1918. Lewis, the future Oxford Don, was an unlikely soldier and he wrote about his experiences in the War with humorous self-deprecation. However, he had immense respect for those he served with, especially the enlisted men under his command, for their good humor and courage under the most appalling circumstances. His war experiences had a vast impact on Lewis, as can be seen in his Screwtape letters, where Lewis writes about war.
In the fifth letter Screwtape admonishes junior tempter Wormword not to allow the sight of human suffering in war to allow him to believe that the war makes Wormword’s task any easier.
For it has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour. We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.
Most of us dread death. Members of the military in war time have to set aside their fear for causes greater than themselves. It brings to the fore that very precious virtue: courage.
We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered the whole moral world for the first time. In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them. There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.
Lewis theorizes that the virtue of courage is perhaps why God created the world as dangerous as it is:
This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.
A gentleman I know was a Marine during the battle for Hue in 1968. He told me that he was absolutely terrified throughout, often vomiting from fear, and regarded himself as a coward even though he was decorated for bravery after the battle. Then he told me he read this passage in the Screwtape letters and truly understood courage for the first time:
I sometimes wonder whether you think you have been sent into the world for your own amusement. I gather, not from your miserably inadequate report but from that of the Infernal Police, that the patient’s behaviour during the first raid has been the worst possible. He has been very frightened and thinks himself a great coward and therefore feels no pride; but he has done everything his duty demanded and perhaps a bit more.
We honor veterans because for a time in their lives they risked, or potentially risked, their lives for us. Not all veterans of course are heroes, old news for most veterans, and most veterans who serve never see combat, but the potential risk was always there during their service. Most veterans at that point in their life personified the virtue of courage, the ability of we mere mortals to rise above our fears and terrors, and that always deserves to be honored.