Each year, fewer and fewer do — and they’re older and grayer but visibly proud of their service. Today, we honor veterans with a holiday meant to mark the end of that human meat grinder known as World War I. First celebrated in 1919 as Armistice Day, it now pays tribute to all who have served their country in uniform.
Last year, there were 21.2 million veterans in the United States, but their numbers, thanks to the fine grinding of the actuarial tables, are fast dwindling: 9.6 million of them are older than 65 and 1.8 million of them younger than 35.
It is a clear imbalance but not necessarily a bad one. We are fighting no great wars. Except for military families, which have suffered through repeated deployments in the past decade, we are a nation mostly at peace, and many Americans, especially in this part of the country, are willing to spend as much as the rest of the world combined to keep it that way.
But even as Veterans Day approached, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was wheeling and dealing with Congress to ward off further budget cuts. He has complained that projected cutbacks of $1 trillion during the next decade will weaken the muscle and bone of military readiness.
The cutbacks have eroded America’s longstanding strategy of being able to fight two large wars and one smaller one simultaneously. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno warns that if the Army continues to shrink, the military might not be able to deal with even one contingency.
Our country has often been taken by surprise and unprepared to find itself at war. And we too often have rebuilt our military to refight the prior war, rather than retooling it to be prepared a range of different types of wars. But we have always risen to the occasion, and in eye-opening ways.
The universal draft threw together Ivy Leaguers, farm boys, intellectuals and illiterates who the armed forces trained for battle in World War II. In four years, they helped to defeat two great military powers. Later troops, first as draftees and then volunteers, served on battlefields in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and elsewhere — or strove to keep peace.
On Veterans Day, we must thank our veterans — and we must nurture the generations that will take their place. One day, they too will stand tall when the band strikes up the service songs.