Friday, November 11, 2005

Knowing the Day

A couple of years ago on this calendar day I started my political science class by asking the assembled students if anyone knew the significance of the day. This was a college American Government class in the decidedly military-oriented community of Colorado Springs. Two Air Force bases, a division sized Army Fort and one of the nation’s three service academies gives COS a bit of a conservative tilt. What’s significant about November 11?

Thirty students scratched their heads and wondered. One from the back of the room (characteristically when students choose their own seats, the “light” gets dimmer toward the rear,) suggested that it was “Tuesday”. Correct, but not the answer I was looking for.

Nothing more came out for several seconds. When it became apparent that I was still waiting for some brain-storming to take place, a young woman near the middle of the class volunteered that it was “Veteran’s Day”. Ahhh, yes. A day set aside for Americans to remember those who have sacrificed for the preservation of the Republic. But, what’s significant about November 11?

Had anyone in the class ever heard it called something else? Blank faces looked at me expectantly waiting for wisdom to be offered. Anyone ever heard of Armistice Day? Some had. Did they know what an armistice might be? Some head-scratching, then a query whether it might be something like a peace treaty? Yep, a cessation of hostilities; a treaty if you will. A treaty to end a long and very bloody war; the “war to end all wars.”

What was this “war to end all wars”? Does anyone know? C’mon now, this is a college class in American Government, not a fourth grade class, not a collection of computer science students. This is about the world and the things that have taken place that make it what it is today. This about the lessons that George Santayana says we must learn or risk repeating. What war?

Now it’s pure guessing time. No knowledge on display here. One wag suggests maybe the Korean War. No cigar for that one. Another, pulling up the knowledge that the chubby guy teaching the class in front of the room was a vet of another conflict wonders if it might have been the Vietnam War. Wrong again. None of these young adults knew that it was the termination of World War I. None of them!

The history of our nation is filled with wars and yet we have been neither a colonial nor expansionist power. We’ve studiously tried to avoid wars and in general have only gone to battle reluctantly and when offered few other choices. World War I had raged in the trenches for almost three full years before we entered. World War II was a result of the punitive treaty of Versailles and a studied commitment to ignoring the growth of imperialism in both Asia and Europe. Again we joined the war late and only after being viciously attacked.

Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom; all proving that the War to End All Wars was nothing of the sort. Yet, we have young men and increasingly young women who value freedom and are willing to make sacrifices well beyond what most Americans would consider to preserve America. We are very fortunate as a nation to have such people.

Take a moment today to think about the veterans of America. If you’ve got friends, family, co-workers or neighbors who have served or are serving, take a second to thank them. And, if you’ve got a son or daughter, cousin or nephew, ask them what the meaning of this day is and be sure they understand. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was the moment when hostilities ended in Europe, but not for long and vigilance, commitment and courage are always going to be necessary if we are to survive.

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