At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the world awoke from its long, senselessly violent nightmare and celebrated the official cessation of the War To End All Wars.
The following year in his Armistice Day proclamation, President Woodrow Wilson said the observation would “be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation.”
Tragically, World War I failed to fulfill its promise, and armed conflicts between nations, and groups within nations, continued to rend humanity’s fabric — Russia, Spain, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli wars, Guatemala, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Angola, Uganda, El Salvador, the Falklands, Grenada, Bosnia, Croatia, the Persian Gulf …
In 1954, under the presidency of war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a day to remember “the sacrifices of all those who fought so gallantly, and through rededication to the task of promoting an enduring peace.”
In the words of the war president recognized as America’s greatest, “it is altogether fitting and proper” that we honor the men and women who served our country in all its wars, from the Revolution to Iraq.
It is also highly appropriate that, as the original Armistice Day commemoration did, we celebrate peace and the unending task of its promotion.
Veterans Day 2005, as are all such holidays during wartime, is especially poignant.
As we remember those whose lives were lost — at Gettysburg, in Normandy, on islands in the Pacific Ocean, in Southeast Asia — American men and women in uniform are dying in Baghdad and Husayba.
Polls show fewer and fewer Americans approve of the war in Iraq, yet even those who oppose the fight are quick to express their support for the troops who are called upon to wage it.
And as we pause to honor all veterans and the ideals for which they fought, some of our leaders are openly advocating a policy that would allow Americans to torture prisoners to extract more information than they are willing to provide.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a victim of torture while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, vehemently opposes the relaxation of our nation’s standards and has proposed legislation — legislation that President Bush has threatened to veto — to restrict the abuse of detainees.
Others who served in the armed forces — notably the nearly 4,000-strong Veterans for Common Sense — oppose the use of torture and are calling for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the prisoner-abuse reports that have stained the honor of a nation that prides itself on the ideals of freedom and justice.
Today, across Centre County and across the country, Americans will gather to thank and to honor military veterans and to support those who are currently serving in Iraq and around the world. One such ceremony will be from noon to 1 p.m. on the steps of Old Main on the Penn State campus.
And today, undoubtedly, some Americans will express their continuing support for the current war while others will exercise their fundamental right to dissent.
But on this, all of us should agree: Torturing or otherwise abusing a prisoner of war — whether uniformed soldier or insurgent — is a sacrilege, a defilement of the nation’s ideals, ideals for which so many thousands of Americans sacrificed their very lives.