This year’s Veterans Day is particularly significant, accompanying not just the centenary of World War I, but also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. It is also the first U.S. military holiday since the Obama administration launched a new offensive, however limited, against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Such circumstances would seem to call for contemplation of the costs and consequences of conflict. And yet, as on every Veterans Day, many Americans will do little or nothing to commemorate the occasion.
It’s not just Veterans Day. The United States has two federal holidays dedicated to the military—Veterans Day, which is devoted to those who have served, and Memorial Day, which is devoted to those who have died in service—but it lacks a widely adopted national symbol or ritual of remembrance. This is the case even though the United States has fought in six large-scale overseas wars and countless smaller engagements over the past century, and despite the fact that Americans hold members of the military in great esteem, enthusiastically saluting them everywhere from mass sporting events to government ceremonies to Super Bowl commercials. When it comes to solemnly reflecting on war’s heroic and quotidian sacrifices, Americans haven’t yet found a truly collective means of doing so.
Consider the ways similar holidays are observed in other countries. In the United Kingdom and Canada, people customarily wear a red poppy—a nod to the poppies that dotted the battlefields of the First World War—on their jacket lapel or blouse on Armistice Day in tribute to those who have died in military service. In a nationwide survey of adults by Viewsbank, a U.K. consumer-research firm, more than 80 percent of respondents said that they planned to wear the poppy this year. In Canada, more than half of the population usually wears the poppy, according to the Royal Canadian Legion. The U.K. and Canada also observe a two-minute moment of silence at 11 a.m. on November 11 (as with Veterans Day in the U.S., the British and Canadian holidays mark the World War I armistice of November 11, 1918)—a practice that workplaces and schools follow across both countries. In Russia, many people observe a minute of silence on May 9 (Russia’s Victory Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe) as it is broadcast on television and radio stations, according to Natalia Moroz of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Washington, D.C. Israelis observe moments of silence on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust remembrance day) and Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day), with drivers going so far as to pull over to the side of the road and stand at attention as sirens sound across the country.
All this isn’t to suggest that Americans never mark Veterans Day and Memorial Day. In communities across the country, members of the military, members of government, and military families gather on both holidays to raise and lower flags, decorate graves, and participate in processions and parades. On Memorial Day, some people observe the national one-minute Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m., which was passed into law by Congress in 2000. Observation of the Moment is left up to participating organizations, such as Amtrak and Major League Baseball. And, as in the U.K. and Canada, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) distributes poppies on Veterans Day and Memorial Day so that people can publicly commemorate the fallen. The numbers don’t lie, though: according to the VFW, only 9 million poppies will be distributed in the U.S. (population: 316 million) this year. By comparison, 45 million poppies will be distributed in the U.K. (population: 64 million) for Armistice Day, according to The Royal British Legion.
Why doesn’t the United States have a common culture of commemoration? One potential explanation lies in the fact that the U.S. hasn’t recently experienced the kind of generational destruction that, say, the First and Second World Wars brought to Britain and Russia, respectively. Britain lost approximately 2 percent of its population in the Great War, resulting in a “lost generation.” Jay Winter of Yale University told me that those men “left behind … a void, an absence, a black hole in the center of thousands of families defined in part by who wasn’t there.” The Soviet Union suffered an even more dramatic loss in the Second World War—amounting to roughly 15 percent of its population. By comparison, U.S. losses in the Second World War constituted about 0.3 percent of the population, and 0.1 percent in the First World War. The only American war that incurred such steep losses was the Civil War, in which 2 percent of the population perished. It should come as no surprise, then, that the trauma of that conflict led to the establishment of Decoration Day, the precursor of Memorial Day.
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.