IT IS A DAY FOR HEROES, this Veterans Day, once called Armistice Day but ever a day to honor the heroes of America's wars, popular or no, the ones we claim to have won, the ones for which no such boast is possible. For those who served, surviving was winning. The day originated with the signing of armistice between Allied and Central Powers at 5 a.m. Nov. 11, 1919, in Marshal Foch's railway car in the Forest of Compeigne, France. Hostilities ceased at 11 a.m. That was at the end of World War I, although they did not have the Roman numeral on it at the time. Sages, the students of failed politics and of ruined ideals and the virtuosos of war all knew that there would be more of the same, but none of them knew what the next one would be called.
Many places observe silent memorial at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, honored, of course, being the men and women who served and, some of them, who died paying for the preservation of a free nation during that War to End All Wars I.
Among the costs of a free nation are the time, effort, blood, sweat, tears and life itself of the American citizen-soldier, who has closed ranks with career military personnel in conflict after conflict. The men who celebrate their release from that military service today saw service in World War II, the Korean war, in Vietnam and in between, and bring to this day what they brought to the ranks of the units they joined in those days of youth and adventure and, yes, heroism: The sense of rightness but not righteousness, tempered with humor, the idea that by striding forward, one foot boldly in front of the other, doing the next right thing, the world would not end today, perhaps, with either bang or whimper, but would be there for the next generation, a bit the worse for wear, a little dirtier, a little bloodier, but there and, somehow, functioning with the basic principles of civilization intact: courtesy, kindness, justice, honesty and love.
Many of the citizen-soldiers viewed their time in service as wasted at best, or at worst stolen by a government that neither cared about those who served nor saw fit to express proper gratitude. For those who saw no combat it was a time of idling machinery, a time of marking time, a time rendered abrasive by a natural disinclination to succumb to authority of any description, particularly the sort of authority that is worn on the sleeve or, worse, on the collar or epaulets. For others, service in the infantry, the artillery, the armored corps or the (yes, in that earlier war) the cavalry meant, whether in combat or in waiting, what Sir Francis Chichester replied when asked what it was like to sail around the world alone in a small boat:
"One's life alternates between panic and boredom."
There is today a sense of wonder that men of some several years of age, a generation of boys, perhaps, knows not of things like saddle soap or Blitz cloths, takes for granted the crisp feel of a clean, dry pair of cotton or woolen socks, has no conception of what it means to alternate boots in the wearing of them from day to day, has missed the scent of Cosmoline and OIL, LUBRICATING, M1, GUN, and does not know that one of the joys of adulthood is that of knowing that gear cared for is gear that cares for you.
The days of military service were days of drudgery and of friendships and of gallows humor, and probably the best summary of the citizen-soldier's lot appeared in the decals pasted over the upper part of latrine mirrors during the days when Admiral Radford reigned over the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now itself facing extinction, like the drafted citizen-soldier:
"Practice supply economy," it said in small print. Then, much larger:
"YOU ARE LOOKING AT THE MAN WHO PAYS THE BILLS."