by Jay Jamison
Memorial Day is celebrated every year in May, for a very practical reason. On Decoration Day, the day we now call Memorial Day, people would decorate the graves of Civil War veterans with flowers. The end of May was selected for this commemoration, simply because by then the flowers were in full bloom. Very practical. The May date set for Memorial Day has no other real significance than flowers are blooming. No great battles were fought on that day, no significant declarations of either war or peace occurred on that day. That decision to move Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday of the month didn’t cause much outcry because May 30 had no national significance itself.
Veterans Day is different. Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day. “At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent on the Western Front.” The ending of World War I was worth celebrating because up until that fateful hour in November 1918, the Great War — as it was then called — was the worst, most destructive, blood-drenched war in modern history. Little did people know at the time, what was in store a little more than two decades later.
In France, there are still signs of that conflict. While driving in northern France in 2004, I noticed small roadside plots, some enclosed by low brick walls. I quickly realized that these were cemeteries of those who had fallen in The Great War. They dot the countryside in rough proximity to the front lines. From the English Channel to the Swiss border, a series of trenches, minefields, kill zones, bunkers, miles of barbed wire and, yes, cemeteries, marked the front lines of the opposing armies. Even though America was late entering the war, some 116,000 of our countrymen perished there, many buried in the cemeteries I passed in 2004.
World War I was to be the war to end all wars — that hope has never been realized. Since that day when hot gun barrels cooled, the world has suffered through many terrible conflicts. Celebrating the armistice ending World War I might have seemed presumptuous for the legions of our armed forces who afterwards were called to newer conflicts in the years following November 1918. The British and French now commemorate November 11 as Remembrance Day, and we could do the same here, except we already have Memorial Day in May.
I hope we don’t attempt to move Veterans Day from the November 11 date. Unlike the May date for Memorial Day, November 11 is enormously significant. We may have to look up when World War I started, but we already know the date when it ended. In 1945, with the return home of millions of veterans who served in World War II, the idea was advanced, by a veteran of that war, to make November 11 a commemoration and celebration of all American veterans. Armistice Day was officially renamed Veterans Day in 1954.
So, celebrating Veterans Day on a date that marks the end of a terrible war is very fitting, for it is the veterans who have borne the battle in service to our country and know the cost of war. It has been our veterans who have kept us safe over here, simply because they were doing the fighting over there.