Tuesday, November 11, 2008

November 11: A Day to Celebrate Military Service, Sacrifices of Past 90 Years

Christmas mail arrives for U.S. Soldiers during World War I, at Bruvans, France, 1917. (Photo by Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History.)


WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2008 -- Ninety years ago on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent over the bloody battlefields of Europe after four years of slaughter, ending World War I.

On that day an armistice was signed between the United States, the Allied powers, including Great Britain, France, Italy and others, and the defeated Central powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.

November 11 became known as Armistice Day, designated as a holiday in the U.S. signifying the end of the "War to End All Wars" - the greatest armed conflict the world had known. More than 18.5 million military and civilians, including 117,000 Americans, lost their lives during the bloodshed. Four and a half million Americans served in its armed forces as the United States became a world power.

World War I ushered in the modern era of warfare - machine guns, tanks, airplanes, long-range artillery, submarines, chemical warfare and other deadly weapons. Many U.S. units trace their linage to the battlefields of France - the infantry patches of the Big Red One, the 2nd Infantry Division (ID), 3rd ID, 4th ID, I Corps, III Corps, 1st Army, 3rd Army and many others. In the 90 years since World War I, many of the Army's installations, organizations and infrastructure that we still use originated in the 1917-1918 era.

In 1921, Arlington National Cemetery became the focal point of reverence for America's veterans when an unknown World War I American Soldier was buried there.

As terrible as World War I was, however, the "War to End All Wars" was only a dream. Just a scant 20 years later a rearmed Germany, now aligned with Italy and Japan, invaded Poland, Sept. 1, 1939, plunging the world again into global war.

After six horrific years, World War II ended, but not before over 72 million had perished, including 5.7 million men, women and children systematically killed in the Nazi gas chambers. This time, the United States mobilized more than 16 million in the armed forces, 418,000 of them dying in service.

Armistice Day continued to be celebrated on Nov. 11, but the Second World War's VE Day, Victory in Europe, and VJ Day, Victory in Japan, overshadowed it. In 1954, Congress passed a bill proclaiming Nov. 11 as Veterans' Day honoring all of America's veterans from all conflicts.

When World War II ended in 1945, peace was again short lived. The United States was thrust into a 40-year Cold War with the Soviet Union, erupting into very hot and prolonged conflicts in Korea in 1950 and Vietnam in 1961.

In 1958, two more unidentified American war dead were brought from overseas and interred in Arlington beside the unknown Soldier of World War I. One was killed in World War II, the other in the Korean War.

In 1984, an unknown serviceman from the Vietnam War was placed alongside the others, though later identified and exhumed for burial. To honor these men, symbolic of all Americans who gave their lives in all wars, an Army honor guard, the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard), keeps day and night vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991 and democracy spread throughout eastern Europe, it seemed for a short while that the dream of peace would finally ensue as after World War I. But armed warfare continued to involve the U.S. Army throughout the 1990s in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and elsewhere. Then, Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything for America. The global war on terror has now lasted for the past seven years.

Though World War I ended 90 years ago this Tuesday, the past 90 years have been a continuum of war - intricately linking today's Army with the units, traditions, insignia, tactics, weapons and uniforms that have evolved over this past century.

Think of the contrast between warfare over this period compared to the type of warfare fought 90 years prior to World War I. The modern era makes warfare from the War of 1812 to World War I seem like ancient history.

This Tuesday, let us remember all our veterans of the past 90 years and before. Their service and sacrifice have given us the enduring freedoms of today. For the most part, World War I Soldiers have now passed into history, and World War II veterans are quickly leaving our ranks. Take a moment to thank a veteran - it's a small gesture, but well worth the effort.

(Commentary by Dennis C. Drake, U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii Public Affairs.)

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