Until 1954, Veterans Day was known as Armistice Day. We celebrate it on Nov. 11 because that date marks the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. It wasn’t until after World War II and Korea that both the definition and name of the holiday were changed to honor all of America’s veterans. Under normal circumstances, the holiday is overlooked by most Americans. But these aren’t normal circumstances. September 11 has taught us a new and hideous definition of war. And it has forever changed the definition of veteran.
In his first wartime address to Congress, President Bush warned that the conflict into which America was drawn on September 11 would be “unlike any other we have ever seen.” Of course, that much was clear when a swarm of passenger planes turned against our cities. Two months later, the anthrax blitz has reminded us again that this war is carrying us deep into uncharted waters.
Before September 11, our enemies made war by sinking ships, torpedoing harbors and laying siege to faraway cities. They had flags to capture and territory to occupy. And although they bloodied America’s sons, they never laid a hand on the homeland. We enjoy neither the pretense of conventional war nor the illusion of invulnerability today. Those disappeared in a flash of flame and a shower of shrapnel at precisely 8:48 a.m. on September 11. From that moment forward, America itself has been on the front lines of war.
If the battleground and parameters of war have changed, so too has what’s expected of the average American. President Kennedy believed that “each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.” His generation answered the call twice. As teen-agers and twenty-somethings, they marched off to Africa, Europe and the Pacific islands to defeat Hitler and Tojo. Before they hit 30, they were facing down Stalin and Mao in a new kind of war.
During World War II, the wives, sweethearts and sisters of America’s fighting men answered the call by donating metal and tin, making do with bald tires and meatless Mondays, and rationing gasoline. But they also played an active part in the war by operating the country’s armament factories. And they were as critical to the war effort as the men in uniform: In 1938, the United States had virtually no defense industries. By 1943, America’s wartime industries were churning out twice as many weapons as Germany and Japan combined. The productive capacity was nothing less than jaw-dropping 24,000 tanks in a single year, 4,000 planes a month, a new ship every 10.3 hours.
By 1950, America’s home-front army was handing over vast sums of personal wealth to rebuild Western Europe, defend Eastern Asia and contain Moscow. All told, Americans would spend $5 trillion and sacrifice 100,000 lives to wage and win the Cold War.
Now it is our turn to answer the country’s call. But in this strange, new war, we are asked to answer in strange, new ways. Uncle Sam doesn’t want us to conserve and save, but to consume and spend. The president urges us to visit Disney World. An array of wartime tax cuts is in the works to prime the pump of American consumerism. Automakers, hotels and airlines are offering enticing packages to pry open our wallets and “keep America moving.”
There’s no military draft; there’s not even a push to recruit more troops. And far from hiring a home-front army of riveters and arsenal-builders, U.S. industries are downsizing. It seems there’s very little the average American can do or sacrifice to help Uncle Sam “Tame the Taliban,” to borrow the lingo of WWII.
Yet, with terrorists lurking in the shadows and anthrax spores floating through the air, the average American may unwittingly be forced to sacrifice his very life at any given time.
This all-or-nothing war may be difficult to adjust to, but it can be won. In fact, it is being won every morning that Americans stream into work and cram into skyscrapers, every day we fly on airplanes, every afternoon we open the mailbox. During World War II, Winston Churchill observed that the American soldier was the only man who could laugh and fight at the same time. Today, in our own small ways, we are displaying that uniquely American trait yet again.
In a very real sense, we are all veterans of the War on Terror firefighters and flight attendants, brokers and bankers, letter-carriers and secretaries, vacationers and public servants. All of them are in the enemy’s cross-hairs, and some 5,500 of them have already made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. As always, our troops are doing more than their share. But in this war, they are not alone at the front. Like the pilot and soldier who use bullets and bombs to fight terror half-a-world away, everyday Americans are fighting it too.
We should not shrink from this mission. Instead, we should welcome it as our chance to follow the example of the veterans who went before us and answer our country’s call.
Alan W. Dowd is a freelance writer specializing in national security and foreign affairs.