Veterans Day is the only official U.S. holiday that honors a specific subset of American citizens -- those who have served in the armed forces. It began with Woodrow Wilson's proclaimation of Armistice Day in 1919, which celebrated the end of World War I, but a grass roots campaign to honor all veterans led to its redesignation as "Veterans Day" in 1954.
It is revealing that we honor veterans of the armed forces but not other members of society who run similar risks and make similar sacrifices -- rescue workers, firemen, police officers, etc. It reflects our awareness that we still live in an insecure world, and it echoes the origin of the modern state as an instrument for the conduct of organized violence. "War made the state, and the state made war," wrote sociologist Charles Tilly, and we still look to national governments to provide protection against external dangers. Americans didn't turn to Microsoft, Amnesty International or the Ford Foundation after 9/11, and while they may have gone to church, mosque or synagogue to find comfort, they looked to the federal government -- and especially the national security establishment -- to provide protection.
Nonetheless, I can't help but think that "Armistice Day" was a better concept. Not merely to commemorate the end of a particular war, but rather to commemorate the end of any war. Those who served in our armed forces deserve a day in their honor, but the real celebration should be the moment when the fighting is over and they come home. And as Juan Cole notes on his own blog today, the best way to honor our veterans is to make sure they aren't asked to fight and die to no good purpose.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.