After World War II, General Omar Bradley, the “GI’s General,” liked to exhort his audiences to reflect both on “the monument to victory” and on the citation toward “humility in our own [achievements]” that the official celebration of Armistice Day every November 11 represented in the United States. He argued that uniting the themes of celebration and admonishment was the understanding and pursuit of peace at home and abroad. This dual activity, in Bradley’s estimation, was best pursued through acknowledging the threats that can lead to war, along with acknowledging the men and women who stand willing to answer those threats through military service.
Armistice Day was the origin of Veterans Day, which the Congress officially renamed in 1954. This purposefully expanded the holiday to include veterans of all American wars, giving it the distinct emphasis of celebrating living veterans. In issuing the first presidential Veterans Day Proclamation, President Dwight Eisenhower called upon his fellow Americans to reflect on the sacrifices those who serve make “to preserve our heritage of freedom.” He also asked Americans to use the day to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace,” as an appropriate expression of gratitude—“so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
The reflection both Eisenhower and Bradley requested is an important civic activity for a nation dedicated to the preservation of each individual’s inherent rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s doubly important in a nation that’s forgone conscription for an all-volunteer force. With the National Defense Service Medal going back into retirement on December 31, 2022, marking the transition of America’s military out of a wartime posture, this Veterans Day should mark an inflection point in the national discussion about contemporary obligations toward veterans and the military community. We could use a moment of reflection to analyze what we’ve almost reflexively come to ask of the armed forces in the name of our foreign and domestic policy in the 21st century, from fighting wars abroad to driving school buses and even teaching in public elementary schools at home, when civilian teachers refused to during the Covid lockdowns.
But to do so, first we ought to have some clarity about who and what the veteran is. After twenty years of war, it takes some humility to acknowledge that we might assume real knowledge here, rather than actually have it. And humility, it turns out, happens to be an important characteristic among former members of the military when they define their military service and their status as veterans.
Who is a military veteran in America? It’s a straightforward question but with an unbelievably complex set of answers, ranging from the legal and practical to the historical, even to the philosophical. And among those who once wore the nation’s uniform, the question remains frequently and hotly debated, whether this soldier, that sailor, or that other Air Force pilot is, in fact, “a real veteran.”
Civilians may only ever hear the debate over who is, or is not, a “real” veteran during election season, when politically-minded veterans decide to run for elected office. Historically, it’s an alluring moment for candidates to handsomely embellish their military record, whether by utilizing a misleading military lingo that may as well be Sanskrit to civilians, invoking generalizations, or outright historical revisionism. (Recently, I did a Twitter thread about this, in response to just this type of kerfuffle surrounding Ohio GOP congressional candidate J.R. Majewski. Well before Majewski, President Lyndon B. Johnson was a notorious offender in this regard.) Digitally savvy modern news consumers may have the technical tools to analyze these claims and counterclaims for themselves, but the opacity to the contemporary civilian remains, to no small degree because of privacy laws, sometimes classified information status, or the lengthy FOIA process.
But the “real veteran” debate remains, in large part because of history. Since the earliest inception of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in legislation after the Civil War, the social and legal definition of veteran has been in flux. What has qualified an individual to be a military veteran in the eyes of society often differs from the legal definition supplied by the Department of Defense. And neither of these two definitions necessarily matches the specific qualifications one must have to receive financial or health care benefits from the various administrations within the VA—and therefore whom the VA classifies, treats, or statistically counts as a veteran.
Importantly, even in American parlance, “veteran” originally meant specifically “combat veteran”—and often, “combat wounded veteran.” That is why there has often existed tension between those who have served in wartime and those who have served in peacetime, over whether both are “real veterans.” This tension was always higher in wars that had enforced conscription, between those who went where Uncle Sam told them, and those who weaseled themselves into safe and cushy positions. The societal upheaval around the Vietnam War then brought this into play between those who served in the Active Duty forces (more likely than not putting them on the ground in Vietnam), the Reserve forces, or especially, in the National Guard (more likely to remain stateside).
After twenty years of war, even though the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) negated the question of conscription, evidence of such tensions still remains. Despite the American public presuming that all those who join the AVF automatically see combat, in fact less than 10 percent of the modern military even serves in a position that is officially combat-designated, an even smaller percentage of which actually see, and do, combat. (“Combat” is surely one of the most elastic military terms today, being applied differently across the various branches of the U.S. military.) But for those with the lived experience of deployments, front-line fighting, IEDs, ambushes, and bombardments, it is not just some legal, technical, or pay-scale difference to say whether a person is a combat veteran, a “real veteran” or not—it’s a true difference that’s seeped into their bones as well as their souls.
Potentially because of the historic use of the term “veteran” to refer only to those military service members who have served in combat, or who have been wounded in the course of combat, and the resulting historical assumption of woundedness in relation to “veteran,” today significant numbers of former military personnel do not view themselves or describe themselves as veterans. And they certainly do not stand up to receive your applause at the baseball or football stadium.
Additionally, although the general public does not discriminate between Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve duty military personnel when calling them veterans, many of the federal benefits designated for military veterans emphatically do make a distinction between these forms of military service. For these latter former service members, whether they will ever officially be deemed a veteran depends on a dizzying array of byzantine requirements, involving specific tasks, where, when, under particular circumstances, for particular lengths of time, and under whose particular authority.
Finally, for the dry, congressionally approved legal answer: A veteran, when considered in relation to determining eligibility for federal benefits and services administered by the VA, is defined in Title 38 U.S.C 101 as “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.”
So much, in quick order, for the social and historical background to the answer of who, in fact, the American veteran is. For the anthropological, psychological, and even philosophical answers to who the veteran is, that is bound up in the evolving understanding of who the soldier is and their lived experience.
Veterans Day reminds us to think more deeply about the types of character and education a society needs to staff a military that’s committed to liberty and equality. It invites us to consider not just the potential negatives of military service on individual soldiers but the positive traits it encourages and helps to shape—courage, integrity, self-sacrifice—which are the fabric of leadership. As fewer and fewer Americans have a personal connection to someone in uniform, we recognize increasingly vaguely how or why that service frequently requires personal fortitude and physical, even moral, courage.
What Americans have traditionally found admirable in their peers is a moral constancy, a dedication to principle, especially in the face of danger. The monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln light the way to a broad conception of the American heroic: the steadfast obelisk, the standing thinker, and the seated judge are representative of the power of ideas, rather than the domination of the sword. It’s hardly surprising, then, that so many American leaders have emphasized the significance of peace in celebrating Veterans Day.
Rebecca Burgess is senior editor at American Purpose, a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum, a consultant for the George W. Bush Presidential Institute’s Veterans and Military Families program, and a 2021 FDD National Security Fellow.
Image: U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth joins a group of veterans from VFW Post 1284 during a Veterans Day celebration, Chicago, Il. (Wikimedia)
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