Veterans Day and thereafter is a good time for reflection on our military. This November marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice agreement ending World War I. Horrendous casualties in stalemated trench warfare dominated that conflict on the Western front.
Combat killed millions of men. Commemoration is vital and immature political rhetoric should not distract from the solemnity and significance.
Germany was winning the war when the arrival of fresh United States forces turned the tide in 1918. Russia, knocked out of the conflict, sank into bloody civil war and a successful communist revolution. In the west, British and French troops were steadily being driven back to the Atlantic Ocean when the Americans arrived.
The acrimonious aftermath of the war included imposition of confiscatory settlement terms on Germany by the governments of Britain and France. Americans reacted to that, and the shock of heavy casualties, by retreating to traditional isolationism. Chaos ensued in continental Europe, and the Nazi Third Reich emerged in Germany, with further horrible consequences.
Before entry in World War II, most Americans considered our involvement in the earlier war to be a mistake. Only several months after the attack on Pearl Harbor did American public attitudes change.
U.S. leaders benefited from direct experience in these wars. Every U.S. president from Harry Truman through George H.W. Bush was a veteran, including combat. That provided insight crucial to executive leadership when the stakes were highest.
The 1960 presidential campaign is especially instructive. All four contenders, the vice-presidential as well as presidential candidates, were combat veterans of World War II.
Democratic presidential nominee Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA), as a U.S. Navy lieutenant, commanded a patrol boat struck by a Japanese destroyer. He led surviving crewmembers to land, swimming for over a mile towing a wounded comrade.
Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Republican presidential nominee, also was a Navy officer. He served on Bougainville, near New Guinea, and the scene of brutal combat until the surrender of Japan.
We never took Bougainville. Rather, U.S. forces hemmed in Japanese troops and continued the drive north to Japan’s home islands.
Nixon was in an area bombed consecutively for 28 out of 30 nights. He demonstrated impressive courage in rescuing and aiding the wounded. Nixon’s experience was less dramatic than Kennedy’s but heroic.
Nixon’s running mate was Henry Cabot Lodge, scion of a distinguished New England political family and an influential U.S. Senator (R-MA). He was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the Eisenhower Administration.
Lodge spent years in the Army reserves as well as on active duty during World War II. In the last year of the war in Europe, he single-handedly captured an armed German military patrol.
Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) was Kennedy’s running mate, and successor in the White House. Characteristically, he secured appointment as a Navy officer through political rather than regular professional channels, but he did serve.
Biographer Robert Caro describes vividly one incident during a Pacific flight. Johnson stood straddling a bay gun turret in the aircraft as a Japanese fighter plane flew directly at him, machine guns firing.
We should do more for veterans than utter the pro forma “thank you for your service.” That mantra quickly loses significance when constantly, thoughtlessly repeated. Spend your time as well as money helping groups that support veterans.
Our collective mixed record in the 45 years since the end of the military draft makes this not only important, but imperative.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact email@example.com.