The New York Times published a photograph during the Iraq war of an American soldier hurrying out of an Iraqi house with a child under his arm. The caption read, “An assault-team member of the Fourth Infantry Division carried an Iraqi child out of a house early yesterday during a raid northeast of Baghdad.” It was a powerful image. It was a Veterans Day image really, although Veterans Day photographs are generally taken at cemeteries. Next week, we will mark Veterans Day and include in our memorials expressions of relief that as this year ends so will the deployment of most American G.I.’s in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters.
America has been making veterans since the nation declared itself, veterans who live among us as well as veterans whose memories we cherish. Veterans are about fighting, assault teams, raids, and saving others. It is all for nothing, if it is not for something of transcendent importance.
“We come to this Veterans Day in a time of war,” President Bush said. “And today’s military is acting in the finest traditions of the veterans who came before them. They have given all that we have asked of them. They are showing bravery in the face of ruthless enemies and compassion to people in great need. Our men and women in uniform are warriors and they are liberators, strong and kind and decent. By their courage, they keep us safe. By their honor, they make us proud.”
And this, from Ted Morgan, the remarkably long-lived former Edgartown selectman and D-Day veteran, admirably committed to his comrades in arms, his friends, neighbors, and constituents: “Will there ever be any peace in this world? Everywhere we look there is a war… I have never seen peace to speak of in my lifetime, and I don’t know if any of us will. We seem to be generating more and more war veterans.”
Mr. Morgan’s observation is almost unbearably gloomy, except that all these veterans of wars past and war today shared a goal of surpassing importance. E. B. White, in an essay published in September of 1939, named that shared purpose. He described a morning lobstering with a neighbor named Dameron.
“Dameron’s whole boat smelled of independence — a rich blend of independence and herring bait. When you have your own boat you have your own world, and the sea is anybody’s front yard. Old Dameron, pulling his living out of the bay at the end of 12 fathoms of rope, was a crusty symbol of self-sufficiency. He cared for nobody, no not he, and nobody cared for him. Later in the fall he would haul his boat out on his own beach, with his own tackle. He would pull the engine out, take it up through the field to his woodshed, smear it with oil, and put it to bed in a carton from the grocer’s. On winter evenings he would catch up on his reading, knit his bait pockets, and mend his traps. On a nasty raw day in spring he would get the tar bucket out and tar his gear and hang it all over the place on bushes, like the Monday wash. Then he would pay the state a dollar for a license and 75 cents for an official measuring stick and be ready for another season of fishing, another cycle of days of fog, wind, rain, calm, and storm.
“Freedom is a household word now, but it’s only once in a while that you see a man who is actively, almost belligerently free. It struck me as we worked our way homeward up the rough bay with our catch of lobsters and a fresh breeze in our teeth that this was what the fight was all about. This was it. Either we would continue to have it or we wouldn’t, this right to speak our own minds, haul our own traps, mind our own business, and wallow in the wide, wide sea.”
Understandably, the veterans of Veterans Day take center stage in our ceremonies and parades. But there is something broader to be remembered. There is the reason for all the sacrifice and loss, the reason the veterans of yesterday and of today and tomorrow command our admiration: They served a great idea.