Seven score and 10 years ago, Abraham Lincoln brought forth on this continent one of the finest pieces of oratory in the English language. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, delivered Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. And while Lincoln’s immortal words were conceived in remembrance of those who had fallen in defense of their country, they also are pertinent today as we mark Veterans Day.
Unlike Memorial Day, which arrives in late May and is designed to commemorate military members who died in battle, Veterans Day is an opportunity to remember all who served. More important, it is an opportunity to deliver thanks to those who defended their country and survived.
Veterans Day began nearly a century ago, initially proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson to be observed as Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919 — the first anniversary of the treaty that ended World War I. “To us in America,” the president said, “the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” OK, so Wilson was no Lincoln when it came to oratory. But the message of what is now Veterans Day remains strong.
Consider this: What now is known as World War I once was called “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars” because humanity at the time could not conceive of a more devastating conflagration between differing factions. It didn’t take long for that premise to be rendered false, as World War II broke out before the wounds of The Great War had healed. In 1954, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day and expanded to honor not only those who died, but those who survived, while also reflecting the need to commemorate veterans from multiple wars. That list continues to grow on two fronts these days in the Middle East. Roughly 1.4 million people are currently in the United States military — the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, or Coast Guard — and we continue to offer our undying gratitude.
Today, as we take time to honor those who have served the United States, we also note that being in the military is not all about war. We also send thanks to those who served during peacetime, remaining prepared and vigilant while noting the power of peace through strength. An ever-ready military, be it during the days of the draft or with the all-volunteer military of the past four decades, is crucial to protecting American interests around the world and to preventing would-be conflicts with rogues and despots.
Lastly, we offer up the notion that Veterans Day, unlike the solemn occasion that is Memorial Day, provides Americans with a joyous opportunity to say thank you. Thank you to those who have defended this nation. Thank you to those willing to risk their lives for others. And thank you to those families who have supported such heroes behind the scenes.
While Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered at the consecration of a cemetery, as an acknowledgement of those who had died, the words are applicable for Veterans Day as we note both the living and the dead: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”