Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Nov. 11, the date of its annual observance, marked the end of World War I, so it was originally named Armistice Day. President Wilson proclaimed it in 1919 and Congress made it official by passing a concurrent resolution on June 4, 1926, with this preamble: “Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations ...”
In 1954, however, at the urging of veterans groups, Congress changed the name. So, the emphasis of the observance shifted from celebrating the end of war and the promotion of international peace to honoring warriors. From there, it was a small step to celebrating U.S. war-making.
Invariably, when people in this country justify our war-making, they cite World War II. It was “the good war” because the U.S. wasn’t the aggressor and because we were victorious. These assertions are valid. Our country was attacked by a nation that already had been engaged in military aggression and brutal occupations, and was allied with an even more hideous national aggressor. FDR sought and got a declaration of war from Congress, the sole branch of government with such Constitutional authority.
That said, the morality of war-making isn’t settled. The most obvious rejoinder to that justification is that it regards World War II solely from our perspective. World War II wasn’t “the good war” for Germany, Japan and Italy in either sense of the word — it was ruinous morally and practically. Further, for many of the victors, especially the USSR, the suffering was enormous. Surely it would have been better had the war never occurred. To justify waging war in self-defense is not to justify war itself.
There is more to say about World War II, because it didn’t occur in a historical vacuum. Especially when we talk about the rise of Hitler, we can’t ignore Germany’s loss of life and humiliation in World War I, and the long-lasting economic hardship imposed on it by the winners. It’s reasonable to assert that in Europe, at least, there would have been no World War II had there been no World War I.
Since the U.S. entered World War I on the side of Britain and France three years after it began, we blamed the war on Germany and its allies. Historians know that nations in both the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance were to blame for the start of hostilities. It was a war among imperial powers all jockeying for national aggrandizement. And as Congress’s Armistice Day proclamation acknowledged, the price paid by all the European combatants was dreadful. World War I produced a popular revulsion against war on both sides of the conflict.
Given how many wars the U.S. has waged since 1945, none of them in self-defense and none declared by Congress, you’d think the argument from World War II would have worn threadbare. Justifications are rarely reasons, however. War-making is popular because it feeds our craving for collective self-aggrandizement. But if “We’re Number 1” doesn’t swell your chest, come observe Veterans Day tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Thalden Pavilion. We’ll recapture its original spirit by honoring veterans of peace, our Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.