Americans have a propensity for naivete when it comes to great victories in battle.
Veterans Day offers a sober dose of realism.
The observance traces its roots back 102 years when, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Allies’ decisive victory in World War I forced Germany to agree to an armistice. This was cast as the war to end all wars. Americans, who had lost about 116,000 soldiers, clung to the hope it was true. In Utah, as celebrations broke out, the Deseret News said on Nov. 11, 1918, “Tyranny and despotism have had their brutal swing … The pursuit has been long and bitter, but it has overtaken them at last, and they disappear now forever.”
The next day, the newspaper continued that optimism, saying that the terms of armistice “put it out of Germany’s power to lift her hand in battle again in this war, or indeed in any other for many years to come.”
But that soon proved tragically wrong. The harsh terms of that surrender would put the seeds of anger, revenge and political scheming into the heart of a young Adolf Hitler, and Germany soon would prove a major cause of a new and even more destructive world war that would cost the lives of more than 400,000 U.S. soldiers.
In a similar vein, when the Soviet Union collapsed after decades of a Cold War and the revolt of millions of oppressed people, some proclaimed that it ushered in a new era of peace. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote “The end of history and the last man,” arguing that the world had achieved “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Fukuyama’s argument often gets misinterpreted. He didn’t claim all conflicts would end, but that liberal democracies and free markets would continue to grow in strength and influence. Many people saw the era, however, as the dawn of lasting peace.
But soon terrorists struck the United States, killing thousands on 9/11 and ushering in years of military conflict in the Middle East. And today China is flexing her muscles, Russia is trying to expand influence in Ukraine and around the world, and North Korea poses a possible nuclear threat to its neighbors.
The need for selfless service, heroism in battle and, yes, the ultimate sacrifice of soldiers giving their lives for freedom and liberty, has no foreseeable end. Etched into the Korean War Memorial in Washington is the phrase, “Freedom is Not Free.” The past century has been a testament to the truth of those words.
No military victory can be so decisive, no super weapon can be so destructive as to end, once and for all, the lust for power in some people, fueled by whatever grievances or deranged ideologies might propel them toward power. Evil constantly reinvents itself, even as it constantly poses a danger to freedom.
That makes Veterans Day an especially poignant time to ponder, reflect and give thanks. Our present favorable condition, the pandemic notwithstanding, is attributable to those who bravely stood up, stepped forward and put on a uniform in the name of us all. Our thanks should be never-ending.