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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Sacrifices for freedom

Thursday, November 10, 2005

This newspaper joins the nation in honoring all American veterans with a special section inserted in this issue. But Veterans Day is not a uniquely American observance.

In fact, Veterans Day was not always Veterans Day.

Although the first observances, starting in 1919, did honor the soldiers who sacrificed for the cause of peace, it was the peace itself that took center stage -- hence the original title, "Armistice Day." Armistice Day commemorated the "11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month," the moment in 1918 at which the armistice (truce) took effect, just hours after it was signed by leaders of the Allied and German forces in France, signaling the end of World War I.

It was called the War to End All Wars, this bitter conflict that claimed over 126,000 American lives. While American intervention in the final two years of the conflict may have been crucial to the Allied victory, our losses were small compared to other nations. Great Britain lost over 900,000, France 1.35 million, Russia 1.7 million. Altogether the 12 nations of the Allied Powers lost more than 5.1 million men.

The five nations of the Central Powers lost nearly 3.4 million, half of them German. It was, until then, the bloodiest conflict in history.

Perhaps calling it "The War to End All Wars" made it seem worth the price. And maybe observing "Armistice Day" provided a sense of peace and security in a world stunned by the carnage of modern warfare.

Armistice Day did not become a federal holiday until 1938, which was, ironically, just one year before the second world war broke out.

After just 20 years, the "armistice" commemorated on Armistice Day no longer had any meaning.

This second world war made the first seem like a warmup exercise. World War II would claim 62 million lives (including 38 million civilians) from 47 countries. The Soviet Union alone suffered 23 million deaths, 13.7 percent of its population. No wonder many Russians today are not aware of the United States' participation in the war, and those who are generally regard the American contribution as incidental to the outcome.

The 400,000 American deaths in the conflict, though second only to the Civil War in our own history, was not even among the top 10 nations in the number killed during World War II.

There was no longer any illusion that this war -- or any war -- would purchase lasting peace in a world filled with conflict for most of recorded history. The armistice merely marked the end of hostilities in a single war.

Americans had already begun to refer to Armistice Day as Veterans Day when, in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming Nov. 11 as Veterans Day.

Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Flag Day are strictly American observances. Not Veterans Day. The other Allied Powers that lost soldiers in World War I honor veterans on "Remembrance Day," the 11th month, 11th day, 11th hour.

And it is appropriate to honor those soldiers, sailors and airmen -- especially, but no only, Americans -- who offered their service and sometimes their lives for the cause of freedom.