Today is Veterans Day in the United States. The day traces back to Armistice Day when fighting ceased at the end of World War I, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. It was re-named Veterans Day in 1954 and is intended to honor the service of all military veterans, whereas Memorial Day honors particularly those who died in the service of their country. The day is special to me as I think of my father, who served in the Army in World War II. He was so proud of his service to the country, and we shared this in the military salute he was given when he was laid to rest a few years back. Thank you, Dad, and so many others who have answered the country’s call and honorably served.
I was fortunate to come of age just at the end of the Vietnam War and did not serve. But over the years, I’ve read the history of many of our country’s wars. The truth is, as Sherman said, “War is hell.” The accounts of war are always a mixture of strategic brilliance and failure, bravery and sacrifice and the horror of mangled bodies, the tragic ends of the lives of young men with loves, families, and future hopes, and sometimes the numbing tedium of life between battles. Most of the time, it isn’t the happiest of reading, yet I think important both to more fully honor those who served and to think carefully about what is involved in committing the lives of our young men and women to battle, something never to be done rashly.
Here are some of my favorites, one for each of our major wars up through Vietnam. I have to confess that I haven’t read accounts of some of our more recent conflicts, particularly in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I would love it if those reading this post who have recommendations would share these to add to my list.
- 1776, by David McCullough. A great, readable overview of our War of Independence by one of the great history writers of our time.
- 1812: The War that Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman. Again, an overview of this early conflict that nearly wiped out our young nation but served to launch the careers of Winfield Scott and Andrew Jackson, among others.
- A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry. An account of President James K. Polk, our involvement in the Mexican War, and how Polk expanded the boundaries of the nation through this war.
- Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson. There are so many great Civil War books but this is my favorite one volume account of the war.
- The First World War by John Keegan. He shows the breakdowns of diplomacy that led to this war, the terrible bloodshed amidst the stalemate and how the end of the war shaped the world as we know it today.
- D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Stephen Ambrose. This is just one battle but Ambrose gives a compelling account of the bravery of American and British troops attempting to gain a beachhead on the shores of Normandy.
- The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam chronicles what is often called our “forgotten war” in Korea. Halberstam brings the journalistic brilliance of all his other books to this account of a war that never has really ended.
- Vietnam by Stanley Karnow. One of the best and most balanced histories of the conflict. Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest was also good in showing how the elite brain trust of the Kennedy’s wasn’t smart enough to avoid getting us deeply involved in the conflict.
Again, my apologies to those who served in more recent conflicts. I deeply value your service–just haven’t read any books about these conflicts and would love to get recommendations so that by next Veterans Day or the one after, I can recommend books that acknowledge your service as well.
Our nation’s armed forces have fought in a number of conflicts in our 240 year history. Many have died. Others have returned, some with wounds on their bodies, some with wounds on their psyches, few unchanged. I’ll leave to the historians to debate whether all these wars should have been fought. What cannot be debated is that those who have served and those who are actively serving even now are worthy of honor. To say “thank you” is one way of honoring. To listen to their stories is another. To advocate for their care is vital. To read the history of their service is fitting. Perhaps today would be a good day to begin.