Long before Sept. 11 had any significance, America and the rest of the world observed Nov. 11 as an important day in history. At 11 o'clock in the morning, on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War - then known as the Great War - came to an end. The warring sides agreed to an armistice - literally, a stopping of arms. After four years of fighting, the guns suddenly fell silent. The meaningless massacre of 9 million men and the wounding of 18 million more was over. Nov. 11 would thereafter be known as Armistice Day.
In 1926, after 27 states had declared Nov. 11 to be a legal holiday, the Congress resolved that "the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace." In 1938, the Congress made Armistice Day a federal holiday and declared it "a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace."
A year later, however, the hope that the Great War would be the "war to end all wars" was dashed by the outbreak of World War II, followed by the Korean War. In 1954, to honor those who had fought in all wars, the Congress changed the name of the holiday to Veterans' Day. Thus, Nov. 11 was converted from a day commemorating the end of war into a day honoring those who participated in war, especially those who died.
About 373,000 Americans died in combat in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War. Including deaths from disease, accidents and other causes, the total U.S. dead in those wars is over 543,000. And, of course, Americans have been killed in other, smaller conflicts in the past 30 years, including 383 so far in the Iraq war.
It is fashionable to say that those who died in our wars gave their lives so that the rest of us (and future generations) could enjoy freedom. Many lives were given, but more were taken. Most who died had little choice in the matter. Most were young, their lives cut short. I'll bet all of them believed in freedom and they probably wanted nothing more dearly than peace.
We can best honor those who died by not allowing our freedom to die and by working to avoid war. We must resist the erosion of freedom at home and the misuse of our troops abroad. Otherwise our war dead really did die in vain. I am a veteran and I believe it is patriotic to want peace, not only for the United States, but also for the rest of the world. I believe war is justified, if ever, only when truly in self-defense, or in the defense of victims of aggression - and only as a last resort.
Too many people in this country seem to believe that everyone must march in lock-step in support of U.S. foreign policy once our troops have been sent to war. I believe it is patriotic to oppose the use of our military to pursue a foreign policy based on unilateral, preemptive wars of aggression. "Support the troops" means, at a minimum, not asking them to do things that are unworthy of their loyal, honorable, patriotic service.
This year marks the 50th observance of Veterans' Day. It is an occasion to honor the courage, the sacrifice and the patriotism of those who served in our armed forces and died in our wars. It is also an occasion to remember that misguided policies and politicians have led us into some unwise or immoral wars, and have wasted the lives of a lot of good veterans. Veterans Day should be a day of mourning, honoring, reflecting and learning from past mistakes.
Ed Hein is a U.S. Army veteran and a member of Veterans For Peace, a national organization founded in 1985 to further the cause of world peace. The Juneau VFP Chapter No. 100 will staff a table at the Nugget Mall this Veterans' Day.