Veterans Day, many military veterans rightly complain, has begun to lose its meaning to Americans. Perhaps it's because the modern tradition of Monday holidays has turned the whole MLK Day-President's Day-Labor Day continuum into just another excuse for a three-day weekend and a shopping mall visit.
Perhaps it's because the memories of war are now so painful (and so current). Our grandparents and great-grandparents may have memories of "The Good War," when men young and middle-aged volunteered to fight fascism, and when those who stayed home made sacrifices to support the war effort and the troops. But there are many of us for whom the Vietnam War was a defining part of our childhoods – I still remember the teenagers on my block (they seemed so adult, but they were only 18) waiting anxiously for their draft numbers, wondering if they would be sent to fight an unpopular war.
More recently, we have the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq, both conflicts that reminded us that no matter how big and well-trained and high-tech our military is, that doesn't mean we can vanquish an enemy or resolve someone else's civil war in a matter of weeks. Or for that matter, many years.
So Veterans Day, perhaps, does not carry the sense of national pride it once did. Instead, we are exhausted by war and all its human and fiscal costs. And that is all the more reason why we must honor our veterans today.
And truly honoring those who have served means going way beyond "supporting the troops" (which is unfortunately used as shorthand, often, for backing the war itself). It means making sure veterans have good medical treatment – for both physical and mental health – when they come back. It means helping them retrain for non-military jobs or pay for more schooling. It means making sure they feel safe against sexual assault and confident that if they bring sexual assault complaints, they will be taken seriously. And for the private sector, it means hiring a veteran – someone you know in advance has displayed commitment, bravery and an understanding that we all have an obligation to serve something bigger than ourselves.
We have come to demonize public service, be it elected office or civil service. That is tragic, since it demeans a principle we all ought to embrace, even those of us who stay in the private milieu: that we all have an obligation to our communities and our country. That doesn't necessarily mean joining the military; there are many ways to serve one's country, including the Peace Corps, volunteering at a food bank or even helping people navigate the under-attack, troubled health care exchange.
We are not on this earth to advance only our own futures and fortunes. We are here to help each other. You can disagree with the wars the U.S. has chosen to get involved in, in recent history. But we all must nonetheless honor those who made the sacrifice to fight them.