Seasonal Reflection: Veterans Day

Louis Iasiello, OFM Features

As the nation prepares to remember and to recognize the men and women who served in the armed forces on Veterans’ Day, a former chief of chaplains for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard discusses the history of the Nov. 11 holiday and suggests that we honor its original purpose by dedicating ourselves to world peace. 

The Treaty of Versailles signed June 28, 1919 officially ended World War I, but the armistice effectively stopping the bloodshed of the “war to end all wars” began the previous November — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. To commemorate this momentous occasion, President Woodrow Wilson issued a statement to honor the memory of all who served in the nation’s armed forces, saying: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

State legislatures eventually established state holidays to honor the armistice, and on May 13, 1938, Congress passed legislation to mark a new national holiday, “Armistice Day.” The Congressional proclamation establishing the holiday directed that Armistice Day “be a day dedicated to the cause of world peace…”  In 1954, the 83rd Congress amended the Congressional Law of 1938 and changed the official name of the holiday from “Armistice Day” to “Veterans Day” to honor the memory of millions of Americans who had served in both World Wars and in Korea.

Serving for Peace
While the focus of “Veteran’s Day” remains that of honoring the nation’s veterans, it is important to note that those who created this observance had another goal in mind: “… in sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations …we call for this country to dedicate herself ‘to the cause of world peace…”

For the millions of men and women in uniform who have served or continue to serve in the defense of our nation, there is no nobler cause than that of establishing a just and lasting peace for all the peoples of the world. As I reflect on more than a quarter century of service as a military chaplain, I recall that military operations generating the most enthusiasm among the troops were those conducted to provide humanitarian relief to societies torn by war or natural calamities, or in operations that were crafted to assist the international community in its efforts to restore peace and stability in war torn societies. Conversely, no military operation generated more of a sense of regret among the troops than those involving the use of lethal force.

Thinking about the terrible effects of violence also prompts us to think about those who have stood for peace and justice. The largest Marine Corps base on the Japanese island of Okinawa is Camp Butler. The camp honors the memory of one of the most decorated Marines in history, Smedley Butler (1881-1940). Butler is only one of 19 Americans to receive the nation’s highest award for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor, twice. Butler began his distinguished military career in the Spanish American War and continued his military service for more than three decades in numerous locations around the globe. He served in conflicts in the Philippines, China, the Caribbean, in Central and South America, in Mexico, on the battlefields of Europe in World War I, and in various other military operations. Up until his retirement, Major General Butler spoke out on controversial issues and was never afraid to speak his mind. For example, right before his retirement, General Butler received an official reprimand for openly criticizing the strong-arm tactics of Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

Toward the end of his distinguished career, President Calvin Coolidge appointed General Butler the director of public safety for the City of Philadelphia, assigning him to assist the city in its efforts to curb widespread corruption. With Butler’s capable assistance and leadership, the city effectively addressed its issues. Post-retirement, Smedley Butler ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the United States Senate. After his defeat, he embarked upon a lecture tour to all parts of the United States. He used his bully pulpit to warn his fellow Americans of the hazards of a growing military industrial complex, the dangers of overseas adventurism, and the evils of war and the growing threat of fascism in Europe. In one of the last episodes of his colorful life, Butler helped unveil a plot to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt. By the time he died, Smedley Butler had earned national prominence both as a distinguished military veteran and as a national leader who loved peace and abhorred militarism and war.

Working for Justice
It has been 12 long years since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. One of the first to perish that day was Franciscan friar Mychal Judge, OFM, beloved chaplain to New York City firefighters and a friar of Holy Name Province. Mychal is one of many people who, though associated with a violent event, lived for spreading peace and good to the world.

The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history, and there appears to be no immediate end in sight. Hundreds of thousands of brave men and women have served with honor and distinction, and thousands have sacrificed life and limb in defense of our nation. The casualties of war are often reported as those who have fallen or been wounded in the line of duty. It would be more accurate to report numbers that include veterans who will suffer the visible and invisible wounds of war for the remainder of their lives and, of course, those millions of innocent women, men and children killed, wounded or displaced as a consequence of war.

The late Pope Paul VI once offered sage advice to the leaders of the world community: “If you want peace, work for justice.” While there are many ways one might honor the service of America’s veterans this Veterans Day, why not consider working together to build a culture of peace through the eradication of injustices that fuel the fires of conflict? In so doing, we join the efforts of men and women of good will everywhere who commit themselves to building a just and lasting peace for all the peoples of the world.

— Fr. Louis, a retired Navy rear admiral, is a professor and director of formation in the school of theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. He served as a Navy admiral from 2000 to 2006.

Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about holidays, feast days and other topics of a timely nature. Those interested in submitting an essay for consideration for a future issue ofHNP Today should contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at Communications@hnp.org.