How Veterans Day Can Help Heal a Divided Nation
Editor’s Note: This is adapted from remarks delivered by the author today at American University.
Veterans Day has a bit of a different feel this year, one perhaps reflective of bigger currents coursing across our nation. As it does every four years, this Veterans Day comes shortly after a presidential election, an opportunity to exercise the nuts and bolts of our great democracy at that most consequential level. And in the aftermath of Tuesday’s results, we might find some inspiration in Veterans Day to help us find our path forward as a nation. A bit more on that later.
Today is different from Memorial Day, when we visit Arlington Cemetery to mourn our fallen comrades. Today is about celebrating and honoring all our veterans, alive or dead, but especially those living among us every day.
What exactly defines a veteran? In this country, a veteran is anyone who has served honorably in uniform of the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and yes, the Coast Guard too, during any period of our history. To be a veteran does not require wartime service, deployments, service-related injuries, or combat experience. Veterans may be our neighbors or our students, our groundskeepers or our professors, our elected officials or homeless itinerants, engineers or lawyers. Veterans populate the ranks of any number of the other people we pass by daily in our busy lives. These often-invisible Americans have served our country in war and peace, and most call little or no attention to themselves or their service.
To become a veteran requires a simple but profound act: taking the oath of service to the nation and donning the uniform of one of the military services. That simple action is enough, for when you raise your right hand, whether you were fully aware of it or not, you were volunteering to go into harm’s way and potentially give up your life if duty required it. We revere and honor our veterans here in the United States, perhaps more so than in any other country in the world today.
What distinguishes them, our veterans, from fellow citizens who have never worn the uniform? Is it simply three, or five, or 30 years in camouflage or khakis? Or is there something unique that U.S. military veterans represent?
I should note here that I’m not one of those who believes we veterans should be adored or put on a pedestal. I am a veteran, as are my dad, four of my uncles, and both of my sons. I get it, believe me. But I don’t subscribe to the notion that all veterans are heroes and not many vets do. But we do know what heroism looks like.
In reflecting about what makes veterans different from the rest of our society, I think I have found something. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on it. Call it a spirit or ethic that veterans take with them from their time in uniform out into their lives afterwards. There is a deep-down belief — rarely spoken — that animates them and causes them to want to continue to serve, and to keep giving back to the nation. There is an ethos that motivates them to reach out — both to fellow veterans, and to other Americans in need—with a helping hand. There is perhaps an inner compass that causes many, perhaps most veterans to always want to do a bit more than expected for their communities, for their workplaces, for the nation.
This week, as we look across the very divided landscape of America on this Veterans Day, we should all be inspired by the example of selfless service our veterans represent. Their service in uniform — whether it be in our most recent wars or the now more dimly remembered conflicts and other times of past decades — reminds us all of what it means to be an American.
Military service has always been one of the great levelers of our society. Everyone who enters the U.S. military is forcefully reminded from day one of boot camp or basic training that all the old rules of what makes each of us different or important or privileged in our civilian lives no longer apply. Wealth and position count for nothing. Degrees and honors carry no weight. Parentage, ethnic background, religion — and most certainly politics — convey no special advantage in a basic training platoon, or for that matter in an infantry company or a SEAL team. Veterans perhaps more than most Americans get the meaning of the Latin phrase inscribed on our currency: e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” Every individual in the military is part of a bigger team tasked with accomplishing a mission. And implicit in that understanding is that some of those missions will result in death or grievous injury for members of the team.
The military, perhaps above almost any other institution in the country, is all about teamwork and blending people from every imaginable background together to accomplish truly difficult and dangerous things. There are no tribes of red or blue in the military. There are no warring factions, but rather just tightly knit groups of young Americans preparing for and waging war against real enemies. That dose of mortal reality can have a remarkably clarifying effect that instantly brushes away everything that divides us as Americans to unify members of the military as teammates who have committed to never leave a fallen comrade behind on the battlefield. That may be a dose of wisdom from our veterans that we could all benefit from this week.
In the aftermath of a world-changing election, we should all draw a bit from that lesson. Our veterans can help inspire us to see each other as members of the same team — America’s team — instead of as rival tribes incapable of seeing beyond our individual interests to the bigger collective national goals we should all share. We should once again strive to live up to our name — the United States — and help take inspiration from our veterans and their example to guide us to a better future as one nation of many outlooks – but still one nation. And I would call upon our veterans to help lead some of this reconciliation. No Americans are better placed to help us work together toward our nation’s shared goals than our veterans, and it is my hope this week that they will begin to take up that task.
For those of you who are not veterans but truly wish to honor the sacrifice and commitment of veterans today, I have a challenge for you this Veterans Day as well.
Remember, we honor our veterans not only because they wore our nation’s uniform, but because each of them made a choice to devote a part of themselves — a part of their lives — to something bigger than themselves and to repay in some fashion the great privilege we all have in living in this country.
There are many ways for each of you to accept that challenge, to give back to your country.
Serving in the military is one. Volunteering in your community is another. Reaching out individually to help a veteran is a third. And simply setting a goal for yourself, a life goal that you will not live your life in these United States and prosper from our immense blessings without thinking hard about how to do something in return for your nation. And that “something” by no means is only through serving in uniform, but it is, in all cases, about sacrificing part of your time, your energy, your skills, and talents and passion to give something to a diverse society that is bigger than yourself and much more than the sum of its parts.
That is my challenge to all of you, veterans and citizens alike. Do something to contribute to our larger community of Americans of all stripes, all colors, all politics and through this, we can — in ways both small and large — bring our people and nation closer together.
Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the School of International Service at American University, and serves as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He co-authors the Strategic Outpost column, which appears at War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for the Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track the authors’ articles as well as their public events, click here.