Today, November 11th, is Veterans Day, a day set aside to honor and remember the service of those countless men and women who, throughout American history, answered the summons to “duty, honor, country” when the times required it, when precious rights and liberties had to be defended against those who objected to the ideals, ways and practice of democracy.
It is not, however, a day to glorify war—for it can never be “glorified”; as the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman rightly—and famously—said in an address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy on June 19, 1879: “War is hell.” And, as General Robert E. Lee commented to his fellow Confederate General, James Longstreet, on the repulse of the Federal charge in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” There can be no glory in war when you see the results in the number of dead and in those, while fortunate to come home, do so at the great cost of injury, both physical and emotional. And yet, remarkably, those who served and were able to come home and manage to somehow recover their lives, did not withdraw from life, but continued their service in different forms and in different venues, by offering their talents and abilities in ways only resourceful and ingenious Americans can.
Wars, are of course, as von Clausewitz in his treatise "On War" says, "merely the continuation of politics by other means.” They are set into motion by the governing class or rulers (or more commonly, politicians) for whatever cause or grievance and are planned and executed by the military (that is, the generals and the military staffs). But they can only be fought and won by the ordinary soldier, the GIs—those who do the marching through the mud and endure war’s travails to in order to achieve that concrete goal of eventual victory and gain that elusive thing called peace.
To defend anything, in war or in peace, it takes a person with that ineffable American character trait, courage. For without it, nothing can be done, even when—unfortunately, unavoidably and repeatedly—wars have to be fought. General George S. Patton—a colorful and courageous man is there ever was one—knew something about that. It was he who said that “courage is fear holding on a minute longer,” and that “there is a time to take counsel of your fears, and there is a time to never listen to any fear.” It is something humans come to know from difficult and excruciating experiences, not just soldiers.
It is that service and courage that is honored today. Nothing could exemplify those things better than the photograph I found of one such soldier who had served in World War I, Joseph Ambrose, who, at the time this photograph was taken, was present at the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1982. He is seen holding the American Flag that covered the coffin of his son who served in the Korean War. Though aged (he was 86 at the time), obviously grieving for his son, and, (by the way he held his head high) proud of his service to his country, he exemplified those qualities that General of the Army and Military Chief of Staff George C. Marshall sought for officers who would eventually take command in World War II: have “good common sense,” have “studied your profession,” be “physically strong,” be “cheerful and optimistic,” “display marked energy,” have “extreme loyalty,” and most of all, be “determined.”
Those qualities that General George C. Marshall listed in a letter so long ago are so quintessentially American, and they are qualities that are now more needed than ever, not just for waging war, but for creating the atmosphere for peace. Our world is getting ever more complicated and incomprehensible and we are facing terrors that are really more horrid than the worst nightmares we could ever dream up; and yet, we will need those old-fashioned character traits in order to come to grips with those myriad problems that plague our world that are seemingly beyond our grasp—or solution. As President John F. Kennedy (himself a veteran) said in his address before the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 25, 1961: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
Peace is hard work—harder than war. If we are humble enough and recognize that fact, we will also recognize that we cannot do it alone, even with one another’s help. We will need that true source of peace, who is God. If we do, who knows what can be accomplished? The pages of history can record a different reality, but that will take quite some doing, with time, effort, and patience (or, will it require, as Winston Churchill alluded to in his first speech as Prime Minister before the House of Commons on May 13, 1940: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”?).
On this Veterans Day, as we think about war, peace and courage, perhaps it is right to reflect on something else General George C. Marshall once said. It is likely that he might not have been thinking about religion when he made this comment, but what he said still rings true: “If man does find the solution for world peace, it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known.”
If we only have the courage to find it.
Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.