November 11, 2018
Some Real Lessons of Veteran’s Day
This Veteran’s Day is a bit more significant as it is the centenary of the end of World War I. That is meaningful to me because my grandfather, Sgt. Harrison Hicks, was serving in Company K, 307th Infantry of the 77th Division as the war ended. Like many men in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he was gassed, and never fully regained his health. As with millions of others, his death less than 20 years later cast a long shadow upon my family.
Later, I too served and fought in a war, then returned to civil life to begin a career and raise a family. But over the years I’ve lost most of my affinity for Veteran’s Day. I struggle to explain why that is, and won’t be able to do so in this column. I am very proud of my time in uniform, so that cannot explain my indifference to Veteran’s Day. Nor is it that my time in service was easy, for it was not. I cannot well describe the difficulties of preparing for or fighting a war, but, I can reveal that on one occasion I did not change clothes for a full two months. That doing so went unnoticed at the time should probably help explain how unpleasant many other parts of the war were.
Maybe the easiest way to explain away my feelings about Veteran’s Day is that I simply do not believe the United States owes me anything special for my service. On the contrary, I think myself lucky to have been a soldier of this Republic. Surely not all veterans feel this way, but I was a volunteer soldier in a volunteer army. Those experiences are one of the supreme gifts of my life, so being publicly thanked seems superfluous. I know many veterans who feel the same way.
Perhaps a better way to honor veterans, and indeed think about military service, is to consider what it is that many of us learned in the service and why so many of us are proud of our time in uniform. Given the particularly divisive period in our nation’s politics, this is a good time to consider these lessons.
Maybe the very first lesson of military service is that the ideals that bind us together matter. The oath of enlistment or commissioning calls upon support of the US Constitution. There is nothing in the oath about policy or party or defending the homeland. The oath is to the Constitution. Officers don’t even swear to obey orders, and much instruction over the first weeks of basic training involve practical understanding of our Constitution.
A second early lesson of military service is that the only useful way to judge anyone is by his or her performance. Nearly, all our institutions, both public and private, struggle to make this simple principle work. None comes remotely close to it that ideal. To be sure the military isn’t perfect, but compared to say, Harvard University, it is miraculously successful.
Lest I sound too much like a recruiting officer, I should admit that much about military service is simply unpleasant. Barracks rooms aren’t full of plaster saints and poor leadership as well as simple mistakes mar even a short military experience. Nevertheless, there is a lesson there as well. You don’t have to admire every part of a thing to love it, respect it and work to make it better.
Maybe the best lesson of military service is that leadership is about sacrifice, performance, and almost nothing else. This creed reinforces something that civil life seems to have forgotten. Nearly every job is important, maybe even critical in its own way. Simply doing something well is honorable and the first step towards being a leader.
The most enduring lesson of soldiering is simply that the people around you matter. This should be easy to catch anytime you talk to a veteran. In an occupation where rewards are literally worn upon your chest, what you usually hear from veterans are about the friends you made and maybe lost. The deep lessons veterans know is that personal achievement holds only fleeting satisfaction. Only those things you can achieve as a group offer any lasting meaning.
On this Veteran’s Day it is fine to thank a veteran, especially the young ones who are just learning these valuable life lessons. But, if you really want to honor military service, take these lessons home with you. Take them back into your classrooms, offices and factory floor. Most importantly, carry them with you into your political debates, where these five little lessons are far too often forgotten.
About the Author
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