On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month came word that guns of World War One had stopped firing; the war that ripped Europe to pieces had come to an end.The consequences of that war were only beginning. In Russia, the Civil War was picking up steam as the Bolsheviks crucified their nation in an agony of confusion and hate. Refugees wandered through Europe, hungry and weak. The coming influenza epidemic would be as deadly as the war. In Germany, the shock of unexpected defeat was about to launch Adolf Hitler on a political career as Benito Mussolini in Italy took stock of the state of his country.
Almost a century later, 11/11 is seared into the consciousness of the modern world. Throughout Europe, North America and across the wider world, this is a day to reflect in gratitude and sorrow on the sacrifice of soldiers, to honor those who returned from service and to mourn those who perished far from home.
In the UK today, just about everyone is wearing a red paper poppy, purchased with a donation to veterans’ causes. It’s a good custom, one that is showing a few signs of spreading over here. Americans have been at war since 2001; the veterans of those wars are among us now. Some have been elected to Congress, others have launched promising careers in both public and private sectors, but some are still struggling with the physical and psychic cost of war.
Veterans’ Day needs to be about more than ceremonies and wreaths. It is a day when all of us should be asking ourselves what are we doing to show our thanks to those who have served and our sympathy and respect to the families of those who didn’t return. Too often, our societal response comes up short: consider the ongoing veterans suicide crisis, which by some measures takes 20 lives a day, or the growing civilian-military divide.
Unfortunately there’s a long history of sleazy operations manipulating public concern for veterans and there is far too much fraud in this sector. Readers might want to consult this list before making donations. In any case, this is a day that demands an active response.
[A version of this post originally ran on November 11, 2012.]