Our nation has been at war now for more than a decade. Since the first troops were sent into combat in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, our nation has once again come to experience what it means to send sons–and increasingly daughters–into harm’s way. Most everyone by now likely knows someone who has deployed. Some know many.
Nevertheless, those who serve constitute less than one percent of the population. Those who stand ready to defend the republic are but a tiny minority.
The military experience is one which is nearly incommunicable. Even less so is the experience of combat. Those who have not served, and have not seen combat can, in truth, never fully understand it.
But, today, Veteran’s Day, we gather to honor those who have gone, those who have willingly–and in previous decades, even unwillingly–done the often unpleasant work of protecting our nation.
Furthermore, we honor even those who have not gone to war, but who have nevertheless offered themselves to do so, should the need have arisen; as someone once put it, those who have “given Uncle Sam a blank check for any amount, up to, and including, their lives”.
Since 1919, when it was founded in France by veterans of World War I waiting to return home after their war had ended, The American Legion has represented veterans of all eras and has welcomed as members those wartime veterans who have deployed, and those who have not, recognizing that the willingness to serve one’s country in time of war is what is worthy of recognition.
And since then, it has served as a way for veterans to help veterans–and for veterans to help their communities, and to continue to serve their countries, even after their uniforms are hung up and put away.
The majority of the professional staff of The American Legion are themselves veterans, including myself.
The American Legion has about 2,500 trained representatives nationwide that are standing by to help veterans navigate the VA bureaucracy free of charge.
We have a presence in Washington, DC, where we work day-in and day-out advocating for veterans–gaining expertise on issues which face veterans and their families, and working with Congress and the President to assist veterans in any way we can.
And, of course, we have the familiar Posts in nearly every town in America, which participate in and promote community-building events all over the country. I, myself, proudly belong to Delaware Post 28, in Oak Orchard, which has become an important part of the Millsboro, and larger Sussex County, community.
This is because The American Legion is not narrow-mindedly focused on what veterans can get from the government. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” President John F. Kennedy famously admonished.
And The American Legion strives to do just that. As a patriotic organization, we understand that a thriving civil society is essential to maintaining a free society. Those “mediating institutions,” which insulate the individual from the raw power of the state, and which build character to allow for true freedom, we know, are essential to any democratic system; as 19th Century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville put it, in his famous work Democracy in America: “to remain or become civilized, it is necessary that among [the people] the art of association develop and perfect itself in the same measure in which equality of conditions grows”.
The American Legion believes, with Tocqueville, that the art of association is essential to the maintenance of civilized liberty; and as such, we represent one such way in which individual veterans can associate themselves together in order to continue to do the work which we began while we were in service.
Ultimately, we honor veterans because veterans have offered themselves for the great task of–to paraphrase the ancient Roman writer Vegetius–preparing for war, so that we may live in peace. Veterans have stood to protect these institutions–our families, our churches, our communities–that we hold so dear because they are what makes us who and what we are.
Often, those who have served will balk at accepting accolades, and titles such as “hero”. This is because war is an ugly thing. And veterans, I would submit, do not serve to garner such titles for themselves by and large. Rather, most serve out of a sense of duty, and an instinctual understanding of the need to defend what they hold most dear.
Of course, this does not mean that good cannot come from the horror of war. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle noted that war allows for amazing acts of courage which would not have otherwise been possible. Others have noted often that war creates a brotherhood amongst comrades which is unattainable in any other circumstances.
But ultimately, war is not an end in itself–it is a means to an end, and that end is the maintenance of a society which allows for what medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, called “human flourishing”.
American Founding Father John Adams said “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics, philosophy, natural history, agriculture and navigation, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music and architecture ”.
Because, you see, those latter things are the things that truly constitute human flourishing–because they are the most uniquely human things that we can do. These, along with family, church and community, are what, at the end of the day, make life truly worth living. But in order that these things may be practiced, there must always be, as someone once said, “rough men standing ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us”.
So this Veterans Day, I would encourage you to remember and honor veterans, but less because what they have done, and more because of what their service represents–that is, a space for robust civil society, and human flourishing.
Thank you and may God Bless America.
Books on this topic may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. A speech delivered at American Legion Post 19 in Laurel, Delaware.