By Thom Little, Ph.D.
On November 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson declared that date as Armistice Day, a day to remember the Armistice signed to end World War I one year before. “A year ago today our enemies laid down their arms in accordance with an armistice which rendered them impotent to renew hostilities, and gave to the world an assured opportunity to reconstruct its shattered order and to work out in peace a new and more just set of international relations.” More than thirty years later, in 1954, Congress voted to recognize November 11 as Veterans Day, a day to honor all persons who served in the United States military and sacrificed for our nation.
To quote President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” Those who have served and continue to serve in our nation’s military have without question earned the right to be honored. However, as I think about my late grandfather, Private Charles Hamilton, who served in Patton’s Third Army, and the more than forty million other men and women who served honorably throughout our nation’s history, I think we owe them so much more than that. It is those things I want us to think about this Veteran’s Day.
First, we owe them true representative democracy. That is what our soldiers were fighting for- to defend our democratic government from foreign dictators, despots and autocrats. To quote my late grandfather when discussing his service in World War II, “We had to win that war or Hitler would be goose stepping down main street.” We owe those veterans a government based on the qualities and principles of democracy: elected representatives, fair and competitive elections, an independent judiciary, public and open debates, and a free and responsible press. These qualities remain essential to a functioning democracy and when they are under attack as they are in some quarters now, our democracy is at risk. We owe our veterans more than that.
Second, we owe them free and fair elections. Without free and fair elections where all sides can make their case without fear of government interference, where voters can easily cast their ballots without undue burdens and the candidate with the most votes wins, representative government is meaningless. When policymakers make it difficult for citizens to cast their ballots by restricting voting hours, limiting polling places or discouraging people from voting, people lose faith in those elections. When districts are drawn to disenfranchise or minimize the impact of particular groups, our elections are in peril. Our veterans deserve better.
Third, we owe those who have sacrificed so much functioning governments that are striving to address the issues that matter to the voters and working to improve the quality of life of those they are elected to serve. Our veterans deserve better than governing bodies so caught up in ideological and partisan gridlock that nothing gets done. They deserve better than government officials who are more worried about winning the next election or where their next campaign donation is coming from than they are about serving the people they are elected to serve.
Fourth and finally, we owe them “Common Sense” compromises. The reality of history is that our nation was founded on compromise. When the founders wrote the constitution that established the United States of America in 1789, they produced a government framework that did not completely satisfy anyone. Large states wanted representation based on population, small states on equal representation- neither got their way. Hamilton wanted a strong central government, Jefferson wanted stronger states- neither got everything they wanted. Instead, each got something they could live with when they worked out compromises. In a nation as diverse as the United States, the best policies are those that respect the various positions and are based on positions where the majority of the voters can find common ground. Those who gave their lives for this country deserve nothing less.
So, as you and I remember the millions who have served so that we can live in this great nation, do more than honor them with your words and memories. Honor them with your actions by strengthening democracy, promoting free and fair elections, governing effectively and seeking solutions that reflect the common good. We owe it to America’s veterans to make sure we continue this great experiment called democracy and pass it on to their (and our) children and grandchildren so they can carry this experiment forward.