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In Bittersweet Memory

Veterans’ Day calls, not for sentimentality, but for deep reflection

By Emmeline D. Francis, None

Yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, as well as American citizens’ annual opportunity to pay their respects to the sacrifices made by their military. Certainly, it is only proper to designate a specific occasion to honor people who placed themselves in such close proximity with death, injury and emotional distress in service to their country. But while the act of remembrance is one heavy with contemplation and respect, Veterans’ Day must also offer the opportunity for deeper, critical judgments about war and the way we remember it.

Every country has veterans of some military conflict to commemorate, and Veterans’ Day exists in a number of other forms around the world. Remembrance Sunday in the United Kingdom involves commemorations at military bases, memorials and churches by people wearing paper poppies on their lapels. In memory of the Armistice and end of the First World War, silence is observed for two minutes. It is then that thoughts turn to service and the meaning of sacrifice.

This same idea was echoed in President-Elect Barack Obama’s acceptance speech last Tuesday: “It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.” Men and women constantly grapple with the imperative to serve their country, for better or for worse. It is worth examining the reasons for making that choice.

There is an inevitable irony in such heavy-hearted contemplation of the lives affected by war taking place during current military conflicts generating many troubled veterans of their own. We begin to wonder: Will we ever learn?

It may be crude to expect progress toward peace (or pacifism) from yesterday’s modest tribute to our soldiers. But it should be clear that to combine this holiday’s solemn, sometimes effusive remembrance with active, objective consideration of war—and the hope for the future reduction of its dire consequences—does not in any way diminish the respect that is due to the veteran. If anything, it assigns greater importance to the historical and political significance of war and the military.

Moreover, while we may use Veterans’ Day to dutifully salute those who have been undergone the trials of war on such a day, the very reason it is demarcated as a federal holiday is due to the serious, complex nature of those trials. As we have seen in history, and as we can see now in contemporary examples of war, it brings horrors beyond belief. The real crux of the appreciation that we should show is that men and women serve their countries, not for war, but despite its grim realities. To merely observe this, and not utilize it as part of human tuition, only fulfills part of the public holiday’s purpose.

This year, the White House issued a statement to accompany the declaration of the date of Veterans’ Day: “From the fields and forests of war-torn Europe to the jungles of Southeast Asia, from the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan, brave patriots have protected our nation’s ideals, rescued millions from tyranny, and helped spread freedom around the globe.” This sentimental patriotism, while to some extent valuable, must be accompanied by an insightful, even-handed interrogation of our history.


Emmeline D. Francis ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Cabot House.

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