Tributes of Silence, the Honor of Words

This years Veterans Day comes in the wake of fierce political campaigning over which policies best serve the interest of U.S. soldiers. Again and again, candidates in the campaign that just ended reduced their messages to a simple claim – that they would be the truest friend and the staunchest ally of those now fighting for their country overseas.

The divisive war in Iraq was what drove this fall’s march of troops through dueling political commercials. But history and tradition both suggest more deeply rooted tendencies about how we enlist veterans in public life and how rarely we listen to the actual words of these men and women.

By a coincidence of the calendar, Americans have found in annual November 11 celebrations an opportunity to replace the noise of politics with unifying commemorative silences. This timing is part of why the day’s activities still revolve around gestures like the laying of wreathes, the parading of flags, the firing of twenty-one guns, and the solemn march past the all-too-appropriately named Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington.

Many of these wordless rituals began four score and seven years ago, when President Wilson asked Americans to observe two minutes of silence to honor the victors of the “war to end all wars.” On that first Armistice Day of 1919, ceremonies on both sides of the Atlantic paid tribute to the millions who had died in the war that ended a year earlier — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Each succeeding November 11 has featured similarly sober tributes to those who died in battle. The day’s tenor is not much different from that of Memorial Day services in May, a tradition established in the 1860s, to mourn the 600,000 Civil War dead.

The focus on soldiers killed in action tends to elevate the actions of troops over their words. Abraham Lincoln understood this point as he stood amid the graves of the Union dead on November 19, 1863. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” he noted, in a spectacularly ironic line of his celebrated Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln then made a nod to the cemetery close at hand to complete his point. The world could more easily forget his own carefully crafted address than it could “forget what they did here.” “From these honored dead” who lay silently at rest, Americans would thereafter “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Well before Armistice Day was rechristened Veterans Day in 1954, Americans resolved to make the November 11 holiday a tribute to all those who had served. Memorial Day remained the day for mourning those who died in uniform. Despite this partition, there have been few efforts to alter the choreography of Veterans Day remembrances or to consider how service, rather than death, might be highlighted by giving voice to those who have served.

Replacing the silent rituals with the words of soldiers need not politicize the Veterans Day services of the future. Wartime writing reveals an enormous range of political views, despite what candidates for office might sometimes imply. When pressed, most would concede that the idea of unanimity within the military runs counter to the highest ideas of an American citizen-soldiery.

Soldiers’ voices are at least as readily available for consideration as military tombs and cemeteries — and not simply in the form of living veterans’ reminiscences. Military men and women have always been eager to record their experiences while in the ranks and under fire, as an ever-growing collection of oral histories, diaries and letters makes clear. Today’s troops are adding to this archive with a constant stream of messages to their homes via modern telecommunication.

Therefore, a recast Veterans Day would perform a valuable service if it focused public attention on the common burdens shared by military personnel across two centuries of war. Such stories and episodes would heighten an appreciation for the trials of service and the horrors of war. They could move us all from silent commemoration to the still more valuable tribute of remembrance.

Robert E. Bonner is the author of "The Soldier's Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War" (2006) and a writer for the History News Service.

November, 2006