(Photo credit: Veterans Day Observances at the Navy Memorial, Washington, DC, courtesy Kevin Harber, Flickr Creative Commons)
For years I have found Veterans Day in the United States to be a little depressing—not because of the occasion itself but because of the way it is commemorated here. In Britain and throughout much of the Commonwealth, Remembrance Day (as November 11 is known there) is a very big deal. For weeks beforehand, everyone starts wearing the poppy emblem that symbolizes and commemorates the sacrifice of those millions of young men and women who died or were wounded in the service of their country during wartime. At 11 a.m. on the 11th the whole country comes to a complete halt for two minutes of silence to remember the fallen—commemorating the World War I Armistice that took effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
In the United States, far too many seem to pay little or no attention to the day. Certainly it has no visible impact on the students at the college where I teach. Nothing comes to a stop at 11 o’clock. No artillery salutes are heard in the distance to announce the appointed hour. You could go through most of the day and see no public act of remembrance, save perhaps a piece on the nightly TV news. It sometimes seems that the most popular public acknowledgement of November 11 is the announcements by stores of their Veterans Day sales.
This has always bothered me. My father fought in the Second World War and two of my great uncles died in the First World War. Remembrance Day was always meaningful to me, even as a child, and I couldn’t get over the fact that the day didn’t seem to merit the same level of attention in the U.S.
Now I know there’s a reason for this. The day known here as Veterans Day actually serves a different purpose from Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth. In America, there’s a completely different day set aside each year to commemorate the country’s war dead: Memorial Day in late May. Veterans Day, as the Department of Veterans Affairs notes, is intended “to thank and honor all those who served honorably in the military–in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank living veterans for their service.”
I’d actually learned about this difference on my first visit to the United States. That visit, back in May of 1988, coincided with Memorial Day. I was staying with the parents of an old friend, and they lived in Burbank, California. The father was a Scottish-born World War II vet who had served in the British Army before emigrating to the States after the war. He took me to a Memorial Day parade. Then we went down to his local VFW post (as a combatant and veteran from an allied nation he was granted membership) and, with his buddies, explained the difference over some beers.
So the Memorial Day-Veterans Day thing makes sense. But it’s a situation that’s unique to the United States, and reveals a sharp contrast in the way things are done here as opposed to much of the rest of the English-speaking world. It would probably help to say something more about these national differences.
For Britain and other Commonwealth countries that were once British dominions—what used to be known as the British Empire—their defining commemorative experience is still overwhelmingly dominated by the First World War. Most of these countries, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as Britain, fought that war for its entire duration, from August 1914 to November 1918. The war was known there as the “Great War” with good reason; it was such a horrific experience for these combatant nations—and such a departure from the previous century, which had been mostly peaceful and prosperous—that its impact left deep psychic scars for generations, right up to the present. What’s more, for people in the British dominions, the carnage of the war facilitated or reinforced the formation of separate national identities that distinguished them from the “mother country.” Thus, the awful catastrophe on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula helped grow a national cosnsciousness for Australians and New Zealanders, while in Canada the bloodshed at Passchendaele served a similar function. People in these countries started to regard the sacrifices of their soldiers as sacrifices for their own countries rather than just in the name of the British Empire. In Ireland’s case, the First World War led directly to that country’s independence and eventual separation from that empire.
For all these reasons, the First World War was a truly transformative experience for these countries. It overshadowed even the bloody experience of the Second World War, which lasted longer for most of these countries (Ireland remained neutral) but which ultimately cost them fewer lives. This is why November 11 retains its aching salience as the original and true day of national commemoration. Its significance has since been extended to remember the dead of all wars and conflicts, from World War I right up to Afghanistan.
The U.S. experience, on the other hand, is quite different. Although the First World War was a gruesome enough affair for the United States, it was at least relatively short-lived. The U.S. did not declare war on Germany till April 1917, and American forces were not fully engaged in Europe until the end of that year. So the country endured only a year or so of real carnage on the Western Front, compared to the four-plus years suffered by the soldiers of the British Empire (not to mention the forces of France, Germany, Russia and other combatants that were also fully engaged for the entire period). As a result, America’s total casualty rate, while still appalling, was only a fraction of that of other combatant nations: Altogether, there were a little more than 300,000 American casualties (dead and wounded) compared to more than 10 times that number for the British Empire countries.
I mentioned that for the Commonwealth countries, the horrors of World War I followed a 19th century that was, for the most part, peaceful and prosperous. Of course, that was not the case in America. For the United States, its catastrophic and defining wartime experience, the Civil War, took place in the 1800s, more than a half-century before the Great War. Everything described here about the British experience in World War I could be applied to America’s experience in the Civil War. The duration of that war and the carnage involved were comparable to what happened in Europe between 1914 and 1918—certainly in terms of the proportion of deaths in relation to the total population. The American experience was arguably even more shattering to the national psyche. For Britons, Canadians, Australians and others from the Empire, the First World War took place on foreign soil. The American Civil War, of course, took place at home. It pitted state against state, brother against brother. And one entire portion of the country—the South—endured years of military occupation, hunger, and complete social dislocation. The scars from that war left their mark on America in a way that even the 20th century’s two world wars couldn’t.
In fact, the modern Memorial Day is much older than Remembrance Day and has its roots in commemoration of the dead from the Civil War. The U.S. Census Bureau notes that the tradition began on May 28, 1868, when children and surviving veterans placed flowers on the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
You can see these differences made tangible today in the way the different countries commemorate their dead through war memorials that take pride of place in prominent public spaces. Across Britain and other Commonwealth countries, most towns and cities of any size have a large public memorial to the dead of their countries’ wars. Most of these memorials were originally built in the years following World War I and, in many cases, they include the names of those who died from the local area. These same memorials later expanded their remit to commemorate the dead of World War II and other wars, including Korea and even some of the most recent conflicts. They thus became de facto sites of commemoration for all the dead of all the country’s wars of the past century. In Britain, the most significant war memorial of this type is the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. It acts as the center of national and Commonwealth commemorations on November 11 each year.
In the United States, most of the war memorials you’ll see in town squares are of Civil War vintage. World War I and II memorials are not completely absent, but they are much more rare than in Britain and other Commonwealth countries. And public acts of remembrance on or around November 11 are also rarer and less widely followed than in the UK.
Much of this comes down to the fact that World War I has had much less impact on America and Americans. Most people know little of the conflict, how it got started, and how America got involved. It’s noteworthy that in Washington, DC there are national memorials to the dead of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, but not World War I—this in spite of that fact that many more Americans died in World War I than in either Korea or Vietnam. (There is a DC memorial to that war, but since it commemorates the sacrifice of men from the District of Columbia, it doesn’t count as a national memorial.) I was also a bit shocked to discover just how little attention World War I is given in the section of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History devoted to America’s wars. Once you get past the Civil War and the significant display devoted to the Spanish-American War, you pass through what seems like a small connecting hallway and suddenly find yourself in the World War II area, which is huge. You look back and realize that the small hallway you passed through is actually home to the entire World War I exhibit, which is tiny. Even the Smithsonian gives the war short shrift. I actually think that the First World War is chronically undercommemorated in the United States. It has almost become a forgotten war here.
Anyway, to review: it’s clear that my concerns about Veterans Day arise directly from the historical context surrounding America’s involvement in past wars and present-day policies and social norms regarding commemoration of its war dead. It’s clear that this is one area where things are done quite differently here from most of the rest of the English-speaking world. I appreciate there are good reasons for that, and I accept that Americans have a good deal of respect and admiration for veterans. Having said that, I’m not sure the American way is better. My question is, is it really a good idea to have two public holidays to commemorate the country’s involvement in past conflicts? Yes, it’s commendable to officially recognize the living veterans as well as those who died. But the split also ends up confusing a heck of a lot of people. Furthermore, it seems to have watered down the commemorative impact of both days. I don’t believe that even Memorial Day is treated with the same degree of reverence here as Remembrance Day is in Britain. I’m not sure what we can do about that.
Valerie Strauss (2013). Why Memorial Day is confused with Veterans Day. Washington Post, May 26. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/05/26/why-memorial-day-is-confused-with-veterans-day/
World War I Casualty and Death Tables. PBS. Available at http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html