When I was growing up, I found it unfair that my sister and I would get Veterans Day off from school, while our father -- an actual veteran of the United States Air Force -- had to go to work. We would usually spend part of our lazy day off making him cards or baking him a cake, but the gesture seemed a bit empty.
I had very little concept of just what he had done during those two years on Okinawa, since my only concept of the military came from “M*A*S*H.” My childhood took place in a decade of nuclear fears but no immediate risk of war.
Years later, after moving to Washington, my wife and I went down to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with her mother and stepfather, children of the generation shaped by that war. Though the Wall spoke to me in an abstract way, the impact on them was much greater. More than 58,000 of their peers had died in that long conflict. My youth, by contrast, had witnessed only the short conflicts in Grenada, Libya, and Panama, and the celebratory rout of what we now must call the First Iraq War.
That day at the Wall, I mused to my wife about how our generation saw war differently from that of our parents. We could be more cavalier, even detached, about military conflict, since we had never really known it.
That all changed, of course, about nine years ago. I was on the 12th floor of an office building a block from the White House on the morning that the world changed, and stood in shock on the balcony with my officemates as the sky across the Potomac filled with smoke. My father, who had served honorably but who had no great love for the military, told me the next day that he would join up again if he could. A pacifist friend of mine who lived in Manhattan said the same. Only one of them meant it.
It takes a certain kind of American to volunteer for military service. Whether seeking glory or adventure or just an occupation that means something, not everyone can be a soldier. Though I would serve if called on to do so, I know I’m not brave enough to ever volunteer. I know I’m not a hero.
Unlike me, my sons, born six years ago, have never known a time when their nation has not been at war. Our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and smaller, more covert actions around the world, are easily ignored, since many of us want to do so. There is no draft, there has been no mobilization of society -- the fighting class remains separate and distinct, and we can proceed with our daily lives as if the world were at peace.
The world is not at peace, but the American homeland is defended. There are nearly 24 million American veterans alive today -- more than 1.5 million of them veterans of the current conflicts.
They are heroes, and they are all around us. Thank one today.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC