Veterans Day was originally a celebration of the Armistice that ended World War I. By 1919, when the day was first set aside as a national holiday, the wounds of war were still fresh, and the countless deaths still brought a searing pain across the land. But the surviving “boys” had now come home. It was finally “over, over there.”
This year we are still facing weekly deaths in a remote war which seems to be for little purpose and with no real end in sight. If we are in an endless global war against an undefined enemy, with the boys — and girls — in endless rotations in and out of war zones, how might we honor them this Veterans Day?
In 1910, with another aggressive war recently concluded — against Spain, in which we took territory all the way to the Philippines — and ominous European storm clouds of conflict on the horizon, Walter Rauschenbusch, a great Christian pastor and pacifist, penned the following prayer. To embody this prayer may be a better way to honor the active troops as well as America’s veterans.
O Lord, since first the blood of Abel cried to thee from the ground that drank it, this earth of thine has been defiled with the blood of humanity shed by the hands of brothers, and the centuries sob with the ceaseless horror of war. Ever the pride of kings and the covetousness of the strong has driven peaceful nations to slaughter. Ever the songs of the past and the pomp of armies have been used to inflame the passions of the people.
Our spirit cries out to thee in revolt against it, and we know that our righteous anger is answered by thy holy wrath. Break thou the spell of the enchantments that make the nations drunk with the lust of battle and draw them on as willing tools of death. Grant us a quiet and steadfast mind when our own nation clamors for vengeance or aggression. Strengthen our sense of justice and our regard for the equal worth of other peoples and races. Grant to the rulers of nations faith in the possibilities of peace through justice, and grant to the common people a new and stern enthusiasm for the cause of peace.
Bless our soldiers and sailors for their swift obedience and their willingness to answer to the call of duty, but inspire them none the less with a hatred of war, and may they never for love of private glory or advancement provoke its coming. May our young men and women still rejoice to die for their country with the valor of their fathers, but teach our age nobler methods of matching our strength and more effective ways of giving our life for the flag.
O thou strong God of all the nations, draw all thy great family together with an increasing sense of our common blood and destiny, that peace may come on earth at last, and thy sun may shed its light rejoicing on a holy unity of all people. Amen.
It is not easy these days to say or write anything that sounds pacifistic, as if to do so dishonors the brave men and women recruited to fight these terrible wars. They have been trained to kill under the guise that they are bravely defending the nation. And countless thousands return home only to take their own lives, or live with the shattering realization that they have been morally broken, having destroyed civilizations and killed people they do not hate.
Most of them have not been sons or daughters of America’s elite or been fortunate enough to attend college, or obtain decent jobs. They have often been sold military service as a way out of joblessness. Our leaders know full well that had they instituted a draft, the wars would probably have been quickly ended. Our armies are made up of “professional” soldiers. The rest of the nation has been walled off from the terrors of war.
For a decade most of us have been so far removed from war’s horrors that we have gone about our business as if the wars didn’t exist. We haven’t even been asked to pay the taxes necessary to support our enormous military establishment and our foreign ventures. We have piled the debt on future generations, but the blood has been shed by a current generation we have easily just forgotten. But blood has a way of polluting the ground we all walk on, and the sins of war are not that easily avoided. The dead we have managed to forget will cry out to us in ways we cannot even now contemplate, and will not be able to escape.