Veterans Day

Saturday, November 11, 2006

IF TUESDAY was a day for registering discontent, this is a day for unity. Veterans Day, a legacy of an event that occurred close to a century ago, has lost none of its importance to Americans -- despite the fact that so many fewer of us are veterans than were, say, 35 or 40 years ago. Indeed, it's the unequal sharing of what remains an inescapable national obligation that makes this day even more important to us -- an occasion for genuine remembrance and appreciation. The country, despite its divisions over the war in Iraq and other matters stemming from it, continues, with a few isolated exceptions, to support and honor the men and women in the service and those returned from it.

Nov. 11, 1918, ended four years of European warfare -- mutual slaughter that drew in thousands of Americans and auxiliary soldiers from the far-flung dominions of the great powers. After it was over, the most powerful men from the winning nations -- under the leadership of an American president -- came together to create various devices and mechanisms for a world without war, among them self-determination for oppressed peoples, international organizations and limitations on armaments. Four score and seven years later we look back on that grand vision from the vantage point of Iraq, over the carnage of a second world war, Indochina, Darfur, Congo, Lebanon, Bosnia and a hundred other places, and we know that fighting among peoples is not going to be ended by some international conference to be held next month in a place with nice hotels.

But for Americans and Europeans there is one great difference today from 1914 or 1939. Their nations no longer fight themselves to exhaustion in struggles that mobilize all the resources of their societies. As a practical matter, just about every conflict they become involved in is a war of choice, and the size of the forces needed is greatly diminished from that of past years. In such circumstances there is rarely anything approaching unanimity when the war question arises, and in fact even a semblance of a consensus is hard to come by. When things go badly, as they are in Iraq, debate becomes a matter of recrimination and, often, divisive accusations.

All the more reason to honor those among us -- the term "few" really does apply here -- who commit themselves to fight the wars when they are called on, to abide by and carry out the decisions of their elected government, and to fulfill their duty to country and fellow members of the service. We'd also do well to listen to what those who are fighting today's war have to say. Some of it is bad, no doubt, some good, and some might be just plain surprising. All of it is worthy of a hearing and of our respect in the argument we're having over America's role in the world.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company