Differences in how military holidays are observed can’t be reduced to a numbers game, though. In the United States, at least, they may also stem from a strain of American thinking that highlights historical triumphs and skips over what those triumphs have cost. Lindsey Tepe of the New America Foundation, for instance, has written about the ways in which public education has become a battleground between those who view American history as “a sweeping tale filled with … grand heroes, epic battles, and the continuing struggle for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and those who recognize that “American history is also full of inconvenient truths … and the injustices perpetrated throughout the course of building this nation.” Winter argues that “what makes U.S. commemoration different is the emphasis on redemption in American narratives of war.” In the U.K., on the other hand, “the absence of the Lost Generation mattered more.” When America’s national mythology and political discourse preach a tale of endless victory and exceptionalism, there is less of an incentive to focus on those men and women who didn’t come home from battle.
The finer details make a difference as well. Joe Davis, director of public affairs at the VFW, believes the All-Volunteer Force, established in 1973, drove a wedge between the military community and an ever-growing civilian population. During the Second World War, the United States fielded a conscription-based military of approximately 16 million people, out of a population of 135 million. Today, the professional military is well below its troop level during World War II, and the U.S. population has more than doubled in the interim. Davis also cited as a factor the shifting of Memorial Day from its original, fixed date of May 30 to the last Monday of May. “When you link a military holiday to a three-day weekend, you lose the meaning of the day,” Davis told me.
Whatever the explanation, the lack of an appropriate occasion to commemorate America’s war casualties has been noted. From 1989 until his passing in 2012, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a World War II veteran, repeatedly introduced resolutions to return Memorial Day to its traditional date—and, by proxy, its original intent. Separately, two bills have been introduced in Congress in the last two years alone—one to establish two minutes of silence on Veterans Day, the other to do the same on Memorial Day. Neither bill has been passed, although the one for Veterans Day has since been revised as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.
The timing of these bills is opportune. Judging by recent polls, the American public is war-weary and largely of the view that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were failures. A debate is also underway about what America’s global role should be, with many Americans leaning toward isolationism (despite a surge of support for a more muscular U.S. foreign policy following ISIS’s beheading of American journalists). In this environment, it would be worthwhile to rigorously observe a moment in which Americans collectively acknowledge the good that their country has done in the world—and the real, human costs that have accompanied that involvement.