On Veterans Day, I always think of my father, a military man whose remains lie at Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded by the pristine white markers of America’s war dead. I always come away from my parents’ burial place freshly attuned to the special gravity we sense in all war veterans. They are initiates into the deep mystery of mortality. On Veterans Day, the nation acknowledges their service. But discharging the nation’s debt to them requires more than than a simple salute. Americans must try to understand what our brave and selfless military men and women have actually been asked to do.
Today’s observance has its origins in the World War I armistice, and takes its resonance from traditions set by the World War II generation, of which my dad was part. But by now there are more than 2 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them still young. For all of the tribulations of the legions of warriors who went before them, veterans of these contemporary wars have been plunged into complexities of risk and moral anarchy of which my father’s generation knew little.