By Cardinal Justin Rigali
As we honor those who served our country on Veterans Day, we take this tribute as our topic this week.
Veterans Day is meant to be a day of peace
Most of us probably know that Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day. It was instituted after the First World War (1914-1918) to commemorate the return of peace after that bloody and tragic conflict. Since an Armistice was declared on Nov. 11, 1918, “at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” that date was fixed for its celebration. It seems to be a cruel twist of history, and another indication of our fickle human nature, that the end of what was called the “war to end all wars,” ushered in the most bloody century in human history.
In calling upon the president to make Nov. 11 an official holiday, the United States Congress passed a resolution in 1926, which stated, among other things, “It is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” In 1938, the name of the day was changed to Veterans Day and, after the Second World War, the Day was declared as one to honor all those who fought in the wars of our country.
In honoring those who served our country, we do not seek to glorify war. In fact, in the famous words of General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), “The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war” (Farewell Speech, West Point, 12 May 1962). However, we should be moved by sentiments of gratitude for those who have served our country along with an awareness of a proper sense of patriotism and admiration for the noble qualities found in a faithful soldier.
Awareness of the service of others
When we read the account of the fall of our first parents in the Book of Genesis, we are able to see the source of a very basic human weakness: selfishness. Our first parents refused to acknowledge their duties to God and to one another and acted in a moment of selfishness. This selfish act affected the entire human race. It is a temptation for all of us to create a self-serving island within ourselves, while forgetting what others have done for us and our obligation to them.
In commemorating the men and women who have served our country so faithfully, we are also reminded that we are part of a wider human community. This community has been so ordered by God that we cannot exist entirely on our own, because God has willed that we live as part of this human society. As we honor our veterans, we are reminded that there are many people to whom we owe our freedom and the way of life we enjoy in the United States. We may not know their names, but our awareness of their service and sacrifice enables us to go beyond ourselves and realize the debt of gratitude that we owe. Indeed, on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery we see the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
A proper understanding of patriotism
Love of country is something that has been placed within us as part of that “love of place,” which we can experience as thinking and loving human beings. We think of the home in which we grew up, our own neighborhood, places that are associated with important moments in our lives and, like an umbrella over all of these, we are called to love the country in which we live.
For many Americans, who are descended from immigrants from other countries, there is also a certain affection for the country of origin of one’s family, and for its customs and characteristics. Patriotism does not mean a mindless acceptance of all our country does or stands for. In fact, there have also been terrible crimes committed in the name of a false sense of patriotism. However, it can happen that the country we love is attacked by external forces and just as we would defend our home from anyone who attacks it, sometimes a country must also be defended.
In this context, we also honor our country’s veterans. When motivated by a proper love of country and a desire to defend that country and what it stands for, those serving in the Armed Forces, especially during a time of war, express their patriotism to a marked degree. In doing this, they also perform an act of charity towards their fellow citizens whom they are defending.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council, while extolling every pursuit of peace and condemning “total war,” aimed at complete destruction of cities and civilian populations, nonetheless acknowledges the rights of countries to defend themselves.
It states: “Government authorities and others who share public responsibility have the duty to protect the welfare of the people entrusted to their care and to conduct such grave matters (waging war) soberly.” Speaking of the role of the soldier, it further states: “Those who are pledged to the service of their country as members of the armed forces should regard themselves as agents of security and freedom on behalf of their people. As long as they fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace” (Gaudium et Spes, 79).
Proper values of a soldier
The characteristics of our veterans enable us to see some of the more noble characteristics of the human person and the opportunity to extol them. One of these characteristics is selflessness: the soldier leaves the comforts of home and lives a life of many sacrifices. This is especially true for Americans, who enjoy so many comforts which many others throughout the world do not possess.
We sometimes hear that a veteran “doesn’t want to talk about” wartime experiences. Very often, this is because those experiences were so difficult that to relive them is very painful. They involve not only separation from loved ones and the deprivations of a soldier’s life, but they sometimes also include seeing fellow soldiers wounded and killed before their eyes.
We also rightfully associate the virtue of courage with the life of our veterans. Many instances of great nobility and selfless courage are to be found in their experiences. These should not be forgotten. As we honor all our veterans, we especially recall those who served in the Second World War because, at this stage, many of them are aged and we read more frequently of their deaths. We can sometimes forget that from among them came many noble acts and many sacrifices. This is true of all veterans, but we must especially remind ourselves of these facts when it comes to those who are now elderly and ill. Those whom we now see as somewhat weak once defended their country with great strength.
A characteristic of the American military, which has displayed itself time and again, is charity towards the population living in a war zone. We know that mistakes, and even crimes, can also be committed in these circumstances, but the fact remains that the overall reputation of the American soldier is one of fairness to prisoners of war and charity towards civilian populations. This was more possible in wars of the past, where the innocent civilian was easily recognized and the combatant role was more clearly defined, but it should not be forgotten.
A time to remember
On the eve of the Second World War, in appealing to the nations of the world, Pope Pius XII said: “Nothing is lost with peace. All can be lost in war” (Radio Message, 24 August 1939).
Pope Benedict XVI said recently: “We must never resign ourselves to the absence of peace. Peace is possible. Peace is urgent. Peace is an indispensable condition for a life worthy of the human person and society” (Homily, Mass at the closing of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, 24 October 2010).
The soldier must desire peace, along with the civilian population of the country. However, when called upon to serve in times of need, the soldier can become the noble and courageous defender of freedom and the instrument of a return to peace.
There is a Chinese saying: “When you drink the water, don’t forget those who dug the well.” As we enjoy so many freedoms in our own beloved country, let us not forget those who defended them, were wounded for them and died for them: our veterans.
11 November 2010