The national holiday that falls on November 11 used to be Armistice Day. It marked the point at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November 1918 when the guns fell silent at the end of the World War I. It was not until October 1954 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the first Veterans Day and called on Americans to “pay appropriate homage to the veterans of all its wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this Nation.”
But in shifting the holiday’s focus from the end of a specific war to a timeless celebration of all veterans, President Eisenhower helped usher in a general American willingness to extract our past and present wars from their histories and to make war a permanent backdrop to the American experience.
In A Timeless Call, the short film about veterans he produced for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Steven Spielberg equated the service and sacrifice of past and present soldiers. He especially celebrated the willingness of young men and women to serve in today’s all-volunteer military. But Spielberg did not take viewers back to November 11, 1918. He traced a line from contemporary soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan “back over history’s horizon” to the GIs on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima.
This trajectory reflects the centrality of World War II for nearly all American thinking about war. It marks the triumph of an argument in which World War II was not just a necessary or even a “good” war but, as historian Michael C.C. Adams wryly put it, the “best war ever.” Since 2004, the World War II monument, located on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, has in effect put that war at the center of American national iconography.
If all veterans are equivalent, and their wars, like World War II, are all good, then a holiday commemorating those veterans no longer aspires to commemorate that date “with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” (as the 1926 Congressional Resolution declared, when it called for commemorations of Armistice Day). Instead, the public rituals of Veterans Day increasingly perform a sort of “military appreciation.” They presume war to be the normal state of American affairs. In other words, a day intended to commemorate those who ceased fighting at the end of one war, has been transformed into a holiday that recognizes those who continue fighting, and are presumed will always have to.