At 11 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, 1918, in Compiègne, France, the Allies and the Germans agreed to a temporary cessation of hostilities, an armistice, months before the final peace treaty—the 1919 Treaty of Versailles—brought an end to World War I. And on that day, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 Armistice Day, to honor the 116,516 U.S. soldiers who died in what came to be called “the war to end all wars.”
But World War I was not the war to end them all. Approximately 418,500 U.S. troops lost their lives in World War II, followed by 47,378 in the Vietnam conflict, and more recently, the more than 7,000 who, according to Defense Department estimates, lost their lives between 2001 and the present while serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 and moved the day’s focus from remembering the dead of World War I to remembering everyone who has served in the U.S. military.
Body-count reports, however, fail to capture the aftermath of that service—the number of people left crippled in body, mind, and spirit, proud to have served but unable to erase the horrors of war from their lives. Some are languishing in military hospitals that are underfunded and ill-prepared to deal with the physical and psychological injuries veterans bring home. Some are missing legs and arms. Some are haunted by images of friends and allies who will never return, or by the memory of killing another human being. Some turn to alcohol and drugs to ease their psychological pain, and they fall below the radar of veterans’ services.
While Memorial Day is a solemn occasion for remembering our war dead, Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is a day to honor the estimated 18 million living U.S. veterans, 186 of whom live in Harvard, according to Town Clerk Marlene Kenney. The new monument dedicated on the Common this week to recognize the local men and women who served in the military during World War II and the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Era wars contains the names of 345 living and deceased veterans—a testament to the town’s tradition and respect for military service.
We don’t know which war will be the one that ends them all. Each new conflict seems more terrible than the last. But we do know we owe our veterans more than a thank-you and a salute. We owe them a commitment to help ease the sometimes difficult transition to civilian life, and a willingness to devote whatever resources they need to heal their wounds. It’s the least we can do for those who have served their country so well.
Editor’s note: A version of this editorial first appeared in the Nov. 9, 2017, issue of the Press.