If there is one sign of health in our often-dysfunctional culture, it is the almost universal respect with which the armed forces of the United States are now regarded. If a few short decades ago, the military was consistently portrayed as populated with madmen and villains in pop culture, today homage to the service of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom is one of the few things that just about everybody from right to left can agree upon.
The reasons for this evolution are easily understood. Part of it was the national recovery from Vietnam syndrome that led to the Reagan era rebuilding of a military that had been gutted—both in terms of material support and morale—in the 1970s. That transformation was completed in the aftermath of 9/11 when Americans understood, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, that the only thing that stood between them and harm’s way was a military that required both adequate funding and emotional reinforcement from those at home. Now after 12 long, hard years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation is also coming to terms with the debt it owes to the relative few who serve once they come home from repeated tours of duty. Given the almost unprecedented burden placed on them, it is entirely appropriate that taking care of the veterans seems to be the theme of Veterans Day this year. But as much as we must rededicate ourselves to not forgetting their sacrifices, it is just as important that a war-weary nation not fall back into the familiar pattern of isolationism that has so often cropped up in our past. Honoring the service of the veterans must also require us to not let what they have achieved be lost by negligence or the impulse to retreat from the world.
Over the course of the last 95 years since the first Armistice Day—which we now call by a different name—Americans have had a schizophrenic relationship with our military and the foreign policies that employed it. We have careened between a missionary impulse that saw us sending our armed forces around the globe in defense of our values and security and the flip side of the same coin in which a battle-fatigued nation sought to find comfort in ignoring foreign conflicts even when that brings danger closer to our shores. While our leaders have sometimes erred by fighting in places where wars might have been avoided, such as Vietnam or Iraq, the inclination to overreact to the cost of those fights has often proved just as costly. We did not honor the veterans of World War One by being unprepared for World War Two. Nor did we honor the bloody and unappreciated sacrifices of Americans in Vietnam by slumbering into the 21st century when the challenge of Islamist terrorists brought war to our doorsteps on 9/11. Today many Americans are sick of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and wish again to “come home” and let the rest of the world shift for itself by pretending that threats from Iran and its terror network can be appeased. But the cost of that folly will be paid not by failed politicians and diplomats but by U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who will once again be asked to step into the breach.
Honoring our veterans must also mean protecting the security that generations of American warriors have bought with their blood. Just as Americans must vow today to, as Abraham Lincoln said in the waning days of the Civil War, “bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and orphan,” so, too, must we ensure that the policies our nation pursues must not foment future conflicts through lack of vigilance and foolish faith that evil can be ignored or bought off. Today is the day to remember those who served and to also keep in mind that feckless leaders sow the wind while it is the veterans who reap the whirlwind of war.