Remembering Those Who Served on Veterans Day

“Remembering Those Who Served” Austin American-Statesman

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012  Print edition November 11, 2012

By Tom Palaima, Regular Contributor

Every four years, Veterans Day in the United States closely follows national election day. This is fitting. Our country was founded through a revolutionary war and kept together through a civil war that cost the most lives of U.S. soldiers by far of any war our soldiers have ever fought. What was happening to soldiers in two wars (Korean and Vietnam) largely influenced the decisions by two incumbent presidents not to run for re-election. Since I was born in 1951, the president’s role as commander-in-chief has been a central topic of presidential election campaigns.

In the 13 years I have been writing commentaries for the Austin American-Statesman, we have had too many occasions to talk about wars, historical and current, why they are fought, whether they are worth the price paid by American men, women and children, whether the human and psychological costs of fighting are shared equally throughout society, and what those who do the fighting go through when they return to us.

Veterans and their families are concerned that the soldiers of their wars are treated fairly once they return home. As time passes, they and we see the war of our own generation — we are lucky if there was only one — lose contemporary meaning. It is jolting when the war that affected us, as soldiers or civilians, becomes ancient history to new generations, when “our” war is kept alive in movies, songs, books, newspaper clippings (and bookmarked URLs), old letters and objects that tap into deep emotions and memories. Many students who are now graduating from the University of Texas at Austin were not yet born when the active six-month combat phase of Operation Desert Storm had ended in February 1991.

Veterans of the Vietnam War know what it is like to live in the shadow of a great war that was fought with strong support on the home front, clear goals (get to Rome, Berlin and Tokyo) and big symbols of good and evil. All veterans know the personal costs of war and the moral ambiguities they faced while performing their own roles in the fighting or supporting those doing the fighting, no matter how righteous their war is.

It was important for Vietnam veterans to create their own national monument. They took the initiative. Controversially at the time, they chose a monument that downplayed traditional symbols of heroism and glory.

What we call the Vietnam War formally ended in 1975. By 1979 a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was incorporated and just after Veterans Day in November 1982 a wall of names cut into polished black granite was dedicated. As of 2011, 58,272 names are commemorated. By contrast, the national World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2004, almost 60 years after the war formally ended. A national memorial to Korean War veterans took 42 years.

The Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan come to our attention most often now surrounding veterans’ issues. The high rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of these two wars have been called an epidemic. News reports have covered the difficulties recent veterans face finding jobs and receiving services owed them. Such attention and strong support by veterans of past wars led to the dedication of UT’s Student Veteran Center on Veterans Day 2011, many wars and 128 years after the university was founded.

On or around Veterans Day, let the veterans you know feel your gratitude and your heartfelt concern for the sacrifices they have made, sometimes well beyond their own choosing. Let them know that while public memorials and government and institutional services might be a long time coming, our human hearts are as resilient and tenacious as their spirits.

A Statesman reader proved this recently. He wrote to me: “I remember my dad standing in line with his lunch bucket waiting to vote before the start of the afternoon shift at the steel mill. The union had told him to vote for Adlai Stevenson but he was determined to vote for Ike as it was the Democrats and Truman that had sent his oldest son to freeze in Korea.”

Because of his memory, I have reread UT professor and veteran Rolando Hinojosa-Smith’s Korean Love Songs. I am now reading Bob Drury’s and Tom Clavin’s grimly vivid and literally chilling account of Korean War fighting by United States Marines, The Last Stand of Fox Company.

Sometimes we need to be reminded to remember what we never should forget.

Tom Palaima, regular columnist for the Austin American-Statesman is a professor of Classics at University of Texas at Austin:


Palaima: Remembering origins of Veterans Day

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Palaima: Remembering origins of Veterans Day

Austin American-Statesman Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How many Americans know why we observe what we now call Veterans Day on November 11th? How many know what this national holiday originally commemorated? How many read the presidential proclamations issued yearly to guide our remembrance?

World War II veteran Paul Fussell wrote in his award-winning 1975 study of the human significance of World War I, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.” The supreme irony is how easy it is for those of us who are not veterans or do not know veterans to hold onto unrealistic expectations about war.

On Oct. 8, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Proclamation 3071. It informs us that on June 4, 1926, Congress passed a resolution that Americans should observe the anniversary of the end of World War I, Nov. 11, 1918, with appropriate ceremonies. In 1938, Congress made Nov. 11 a legal holiday called Armistice Day.

Eisenhower changed Armistice Day into Veterans Day because of “two other great military conflicts in the intervening years,” World War II and the Korean War. Eisenhower declared these wars necessary “to preserve our heritage of freedom.” He called upon us as American citizens “to reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that (the) efforts (of veterans) shall not have been in vain.”

Ironically, two years later we began promoting enduring peace with 58,178 official American military casualty deaths in the Vietnam War between June 8, 1956, and May 15, 1975. The start is ironically hard to pinpoint because there was no formal declaration of war. The last casualties occurred two weeks after the war ended with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

As our troops pull out of Iraq, there will be ironic deaths like these and like British soldier-poet Wilfred Owen’s. Owen voluntarily returned to the fighting in France in July 1918 so that he could write about the realities of trench warfare. He was killed on Nov. 4, a week before the armistice. In the preface to his poems, Owen wrote, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Their realism strips away the lofty sentiments about noble sacrifices in most presidential Veterans Day proclamations. His poems and his death remind us instead how long it takes and how much it costs to stop wars once we start them.

The very word “armistice” offers a strong warning. It means “a temporary cessation of the use of weapons by mutual agreement.” It reminds us that no war will end all wars.

Indeed, Kurt Vonnegut, who as an American POW survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, grasped the irony of doing away with Armistice Day. Born Nov. 11, 1922, he recalled that, when he was a boy, “all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the 11th minute of the 11th hour of Armistice Day,” the moment when “millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another.” Veterans told him that on the battlefield, “the sudden silence was the Voice of God.” So it must have seemed.

Obscenely ironic was that, after the armistice had been generally announced at 5 a.m., generals still ordered soldiers into battle. The 11,000 casualties suffered in the war’s final six hours exceeded those on D-Day. Henry Gunther, a U.S. Army private from Baltimore, was killed at 10:59 a.m.

These stories don’t tell us everything about what makes war so traumatic for veterans. But they continue a long tradition of soldiers trying to tell us. At the start of this tradition, Homer and the Greek tragedians distilled the essence of what veterans have to say: Owen’s pity, Fussell’s irony, Vonnegut’s deep feelings of senseless absurdity and Eisenhower’s sincere longing for an enduring peace.

On Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., noted director and translator Peter Meineck will bring his national initiative, Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives, to the University of Texas at Austin with a free program of readings from ancient texts about war designed for veterans and the concerned public. A dialogue discussion will follow with Sharon Wills, Team Leader for the Postraumatic Stress Disorders Clinical Team at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic.

See for details.

At 11 a.m. Friday, the opening of the University of Texas at Austin’s Student Veteran Center is scheduled.


Make Veterans Day meaningful wherever you are.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.