Heroes, living and dead

In the United States, today is Veterans' Day. On it we remember specifically American veterans who are living.

In one way, this is strange. In Canada and throughout the British Commonwealth, and in other nations friendly to us, it is "Remembrance Day" which is observed on November 11. It functions in  the same way that Memorial Day functions for us. It commemorates the truce which effectively ended the First World War at "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918, and is the day on which the heroic dead are honored.

When I was growing up, Veterans' Day was still Armistice Day in the United States- also calling to mind the ending of World War I, but mainly by honoring living veterans of the World Wars and Korea. Why the difference in name and emphasis from the observance on the same day in the Commonweslth and elsewhere?  Because our equivalent of Remembrance Day- Memorial Day, celebrated in May- is much older. It was begun at the conclusion of the American Civil War as "Decoration Day," on which the war dead were honored by decorating their graves. What, then, to do with the day on which the "War to End All Wars" ended? The solution: a day to honor living veterans, to go alongside the day on which we already honored the fallen.

This has always led to a great deal of confusion in the States. On the day on which the countries with which we have the most in common are honoring specifically their dead heroes, we are honoring our living ones. Here, it is on a day reserved for thanking the living, if at all, that people wear poppies in their lapels.  I remember having to memorize John McCrae's "In Flanders Field" in second or third grade, and reciting it in chorus with my classmates at a special assembly on a day supposedly about honoring living veterans.

It shouldn't be surprising that even in the States the difference between Veterans' Day (formerly Armistice Day) and Memorial Day (formerly Decoration Day) confuses a great many people The distinction between the two observances can be seen in this chart:

Ok. Got that?

Well, from the time I myself first comprehended the distinction, I have to admit that it has bothered me a little. Nobody, in my experience, is as strict about limiting the honor we give to the heroic dead to the dead on Memorial Day as a living American veteran! Yet while the difference between living heroes and dead ones is, at one level, rather obvious, that very difference carries within it similarities. We honor the dead in May for having actually made a sacrifice which we honor the living in November (even as our closest allies are honoring specifically their dead) for having been willing to make. There is an element of commonality which, without abolishing or even equivocating about the difference, lies at the heart of both observances.

It is summed up in a song being sung today all over the British Commonwealth in memory of the dead. The singing of that song is a hallowed tradition of Remembrance Day. But here in America, it might be sung equally well on either Veterans' Day or on Memorial Day. "I Vow to Thee, My Country," after all, bespeaks a vow which our living heroes made and kept (at least to the degree it was asked of them) just as our dead heroes did.

Ir ia not, after all, a song about death. Not really. In fact its beautiful tune, by Gustuv Holst, was used by Prince William and Princess Katherine as their wedding march. Those of us who use the Lutheran Service Book will recognize that tune as the one to which the words of Hymn 941, "We Praise You and Acknowedge You," are set.

Most who have worn our country's uniform have lived rather than died. Most, if the truth be told, served in peacetime, when death in combat was no immediate possibility. But I think it's good that we celebrate our more general holiday honoring veterans on the same day our cousins north of the border and "across the pond" and our friends throughout the world celebrate an observance far more similar to the one we ourselves celebrate in May. It reminds us that living veterans, too, were willing to die for us. It is that for which we honor them.

On December 12, in Philadelphia, a college football game will be played which is a kind of institution in the United States. It will be between the United States Military Acadamy at West Point and the United States Naval Acadamy at Annapolis. A meme I saw on Facebook today observed that the Army-Navy game may be the only sporting event in the world in which every player on the field is willing to die for every fan in the stands. While the students at the Air Force Academy and the Coast Guard Acadamy might take umbrage at that meme, it still should give us something to think about.

So as my personal "thank you" to those who kept their lives as well as those who have lost them over the years in the service of my own freedom, I've decided to do something unusual: to offer a "Remembrance Day" song from the UK as a tribute to living American veterans. Its words, after all, might well be thought of as springing metaphorically their voices, too. It bespeaks a vow which they, too, have made and kept.from the metaphoriacal voices of all alike. It speaks of a vow which living and dead alike have both made and kept.

May it inspire in our own hearts the same sentiment, even if we are not asked to make the same sacrices they made or take the same risks they took on our behalf.


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