We may never leave behind for good the era when armed service is a mass experience.
Today at 5 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, we mark the 101st anniversary of the armistice that ended the agony of the First World War. The armistice went into effect, by Paris time, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, at what must have seemed at the time like the eleventh hour for Western civilization. On its first anniversary, a hundred years ago today, the Wilson administration proclaimed the day “Armistice Day.” It became a national holiday in 1938, at a time when the commemoration of peace in Europe looked increasingly like a short-lived victory.
In 1954, by order of President Dwight Eisenhower, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day. There was some popular discontent with the term “armistice” at the time, due to the anticlimactic armistice concluding active hostilities in the Korean War the previous year, but the main impetus was to honor the many veterans of that war and the Second World War with a more general holiday. (Memorial Day, with its specific focus on the fallen in combat, dates back to the Civil War.) Congress, in an effort to ensure more three-day weekends for federal workers, moved the holiday to the fourth Monday in October in 1968 (along with relocating Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Washington’s birthday from their longstanding dates), but the breaking of the connection with the holiday’s historic roots was unpopular, and Gerald Ford signed a law returning Veterans Day to November 11 in 1975, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War.
The evolution of the holiday is itself reflective of the changing status of military service in America. In the generation of the Founding Fathers, Americans saw it as every able-bodied man’s duty to serve in the militia, giving the nation a potentially larger military force than even most European powers in the days before the French Revolutionary levée en masse of 1793 changed war from a contest of professional standing armies to battles of entire peoples. During the Revolution, the Continental Army was typically outnumbered about three to two by the British and Hessian forces (which rarely exceeded 25,000 men), but the balance was often evened and then some by the militia. In fact, the British needed to counter this with significant recruitment of local loyalist militia of their own. Yet Americans of that era had a deep and vocal dislike of standing armies, and Washington moved swiftly to demobilize the Continental Army once the war was over.
A militia-based society was falling behind the times by the War of 1812, when the greatly expanded British Army, battle-hardened from fighting Napoleon, frequently overmatched the American militia. In the four decades that followed, military service became increasingly rare, as the nation depended on a small, professional army. And yet military heroes never lost their luster: War heroes and generals such as Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Winfield Scott, and John C. Frémont became presidents or presidential candidates, often mainly on the strength of their service.
The Civil War changed all that — for a while. The vast demands of the war led both Union and Confederacy to impose forced conscription, and around 3 million men served. Active-duty Union soldiers were a crucial voting bloc in 1864, backing Lincoln over their former commander, George McClellan. The uniformity of service brought many changes: For example, the Union’s need to outfit so many men so quickly led to the development of standard sizes for men’s clothing. The First World War’s demands for uniforming the men would likewise produce unprecedented data on the physical dimensions of the typical American man. Civil War service by former slaves had far-reaching consequences for popular views of African Americans as capable and deserving citizens, a process that would be repeated in the Second World War. Veterans of the war would found organizations ranging from the Grand Army of the Republic and the National Rifle Association in the North to the Ku Klux Klan in the South.
In the years after the war, American presidents and other political leaders tended to be younger men than before — because they were men who had served. Ulysses S. Grant was 46 when he took the oath of office; three decades later, William McKinley was 53, having been a teenager during his service. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was gravely wounded at Antietam in 1862 and retired from the Supreme Court in 1931, closed that chapter. The Second World War and the Vietnam War would likewise skew the age of political leaders, from the young veterans of 1960 — John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the generation to whom “the torch has been passed” — to Bob Dole and John McCain, the last men of their generation. Ralph Hall and John Dingell were the last Second World War veterans to serve in Congress; both died this year.
Between the Civil War and the First World War, the common experience of military service dwindled (though the Veterans of Foreign Wars was founded in 1899, shortly after the Spanish-American War). Service in the First World War, while enlisting over 4 million Americans in a year and a half and resulting in the formation of another great American veterans’ organization (the American Legion), would leave for many a sour taste. The “doughboys” were demobilized rapidly yet again, and by the early 1930s many of them were fighting Washington for the simple right to collect on payments they had been promised for service. The bayonets and tear gas turned on the “Bonus Army” in 1932 were as shameful an episode as the nation has seen in its treatment of veterans.
Only the Second World War, and the draft that was maintained in peace and war through Korea and Vietnam, would truly create a society where men had the common experience of service. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for most of the adult men to have served; my dad and his brother and his two sisters’ husbands had served, as had my mom’s brother; my wife’s father saw combat in the Atlantic in World War II. Not just the drama but the day-to-day humor of military experience was a common thing, touched by pop-culture staples like Beetle Bailey and the Readers’ Digest‘s “Humor in Uniform” column.
Nobody appreciated this more than Eisenhower, who had a paternal sense of obligation to the men who served under him, yet he also drew on the traditional American suspicion of standing armies when he warned of our growing “military-industrial complex.” With the fraternal and public-spirited benefits of service as a common, shared experience (one that was no longer racially exclusionary after Truman desegregated the armed forces) came also the fear that too many Americans had absorbed military values to the exclusion of the old, small-r republican values. In the late 1960s, veterans such as Don Rumsfeld led the charge to eliminate the regular draft and restore the all-volunteer service.
After more than four decades without a draft, the proportion of Americans who have worn their nation’s uniform has been in steady decline, not even halted by two decades of continuous foreign war after September 11. Of the approximately 18 million living American veterans in a nation of 330 million people, about 7 million served in Vietnam, at least twice as many as have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other post-9/11 theaters of combat. They, too, are growing old now. Only about half a million veterans of the Second World War remain, out of some 16 million who were mobilized, and their number is declining precipitously. We face a future in which foreign wars remain ongoing and likely to stay that way, yet only a small and diminishing number of our countrymen (and women, today around 10 percent of veterans and rising) will bear the burden of serving in them.
The honor roll of states and nations where Americans have fought and died is preposterously long, and never seems to stop growing, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, France, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Okinawa, the Philippines, Massachusetts, Korea, Mexico, Germany, Belgium, Texas, Russia, New Guinea, Louisiana, Italy, Somalia, Ohio, Cuba, Libya, the Solomon Islands, Tennessee, Hawaii, Iwo Jima, Canada, Bosnia, Midway, the Aleutian Islands, Maryland, Tunisia, South Dakota, Tarawa, Algeria, Maine, Haiti, Morocco, South Carolina, Holland, Puerto Rico, Georgia, Guam, North Carolina, Grenada, Nicaragua, Florida, China, the Marianas Islands, New Jersey, Panama, New York, Niger, the Dominican Republic, Kosovo, Lebanon, Missouri, Kentucky, Syria, Mississippi, and Romania — and I’m sure I have missed a few. The list where Americans have served is even longer, much longer.
We can’t know what the future holds. A 1954 Peanuts strip (drawn by World War II veteran Charles Schulz) shows Charlie Brown displaying his collection of war comics up through Korea, but he confesses to Shermy, “The next issue has really got me worried.” The generation that grew up reading Peanuts would find out. We may never leave behind for good the era when armed service is a mass experience; we thought so before 1861, before 1917, and before 1941. But if we do, it is all the more reason to give thanks for those few who still bear the burden.