America and Europe on Veterans Day

Alexander Watson has a thought-provoking op-ed in the NY Times on how today’s holiday is observed in Europe (Armistice Day) compared to Stateside (Veteran’s Day). It resonated with a moving post I read this morning by Jean-Dominique Merchet at Secret Défense about the last battle of WWI, an ill-fated river-crossing ordered and carried out the morning of Nov. 11 despite the French command knowing that the Armistice would take effect at 11am that day. And while the symbollism of the armistice saving the continent from the brink — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — didn’t keep it from plunging into war just twenty years later, the enormous loss of life in Europe over the course of the 20th century left its mark, and explains Europeans’ oft-derided emphasis on statecraft and diplomacy to resolve conflict.

Meanwhile, I’ve made this point before, but I think it’s worth making again today, Veterans Day. Namely that one of the great and welcome distinctions between America’s reaction to the current unpopular war in Iraq and its last unpopular war in Vietnam is that public opinion of the military as an institution has remained solid. Despite being based outside of the States, I see it in my work by the way in which professional military sites like Small Wars Journal and Abu Muqawama have developed not only crossover audiences, but a civilian-military diaologue that strengthens the national fabric, rather than tearing at it.

I think part of that has to do with the way in which the military itself has led the way by calling its own doctrine and practices into question. Another factor is that, no matter how divisive and partisan American politics has been over the past decade, the nation itself has not experienced the same kind of cultural turmoil as accompanied the Vietnam War. Finally, while the Vietnam War coincided with the upheaval of the civil rights movement, with its enormous early successes but also the later violence and disillusionment, the Iraq War coincides with one of America’s more dramatic historical advances in terms of its racial legacy.

There are probably other factors at work, but for whatever reason, the discussion and criticism of the Iraq War has remained at a strategic and doctrinal level, without calling into question the men and women who have served. And rightly so. It’s a healthy debate that strenthens us as a nation.