Veteran’s Day, 100 Years On
Five-hundred eighty-four days — that was the duration of U.S. military involvement in World War I — “the war to end all wars” — culminating in the historic Armistice Agreement on Nov. 11, 1918. In the United States, the day is now celebrated as Veteran’s Day. Last year, when I conveyed the enlistment oath to 755 U.S. Air Force basic training graduates at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, I purposefully selected April 7, among many weekly dates provided by the 37th Training Wing leadership, for its significance. That was the first full day that the United States was officially at war with Germany. I chose this day to express to our most junior airmen the legacy they were soon to become part of, not just of the nascent air arm that in 30 years would become the separate U.S. Air Force, but also of a reluctant nation slow to check German aggression and break its commitment of neutrality.
In the last 584 days, I’ve thought little of what took place 100 years ago. Comfortable in my position as the commandant of the National War College at Fort McNair in Washington, where theory, history, and application serve as lenses through which national security strategies are conceived, I’ve often taken for granted the freedoms and liberties I enjoy, and sacrifices our servicemembers made for me to enjoy them. I also fought, but without malice, enabled by the thoughtless contentment relative security provided.
You see, this relative security came at a price following war all those decades ago. The initial armistice was forged by the French general and military theorist Ferdinand Foch, at the 11th hour on Nov. 11, 1918. Peace would be prolonged, through multiple armistice extensions, until finally ratified on Jan. 10, 1920. Despite the delay, the first Armistice Day, also known as Remembrance Day, was celebrated at Buckingham Palace, London, on Nov. 11, 1919. As the installation commander for Royal Air Force Mildenhall, United Kingdom from 2009 to 2011, I had the solemn opportunity to honor veterans and the fallen in remembrance ceremonies in nearby Bury St. Edmunds, underscoring the tremendous sacrifices of our British brethren.
Years later, I was also privileged to represent the United States in another Commonwealth nation, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, for another Remembrance Day ceremony, proudly laying a wreath and sporting a poppy on my breast. Poppies came to represent the remembrance of World War I because they were a common sign of life in the fields where much of the fighting, shelling, and dying took place. They were forever immortalized in our memories by Canadian doctor and soldier John McCrae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders’ Fields,’ while he was serving in Ypres, Belgium in 1915 and mourning the death of a friend.
In 1919, a year after the armistice agreement, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the nation. But it wouldn’t be until 1926 that Congress would adopt a resolution seeking President Calvin Coolidge’s support for a proclamation observing annual ceremonies on Nov. 11. Then it would take 12 more years — 1938 — when a congressional act officially approved the day as a legal holiday, and as “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’.” After World War II, efforts were undertaken to nationalize Armistice Day, culminating in 1954, when “Armistice” became “Veterans” in the United States. And so it has been known ever since. More than 30 countries took part in the war, and over 29 million soldiers died or were wounded, with an estimated 13 million civilians also perishing. “The war to end all wars.”
And yet, war still remains. The United States has been at war, more or less, for the last 26 years. The National War College exists to understand and study the contexts in which war and conflict occurred and to devise high-level strategies through an iterative and Socratic seminar process. The experiences and backgrounds of our students — which include a mix of servicemembers, diplomats, civil servants, and international fellows — make for a rich and textured learning environment where these discussions and learning take place. Coupled with an outstanding faculty that mirrors the student makeup (minus the international component), our college works hard to harness all of America’s instruments of power to holistically study and bring national security options to national decision-makers.
As we reflect on the centennial of the Great War, let us do so with the dignity and respect deserving of all veterans who fought in all of our wars for the sake of liberty and justice, and may we take the lessons of wars past and apply them to a more peaceful future, such that the last war is truly thought of as “the war to end all wars.”
Brig. Gen. Chad Manske is the commandant of the National War College, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C., and a career U.S. Air Force officer. The views in this article reflect his own and not those of the National War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.