NEW YORK — A bit over 36 years ago, I attended a formal dinner in Houston for an extraordinary collection of celebrated heroes, hundreds of recipients of the Medal of Honor.
My tablemates included “Commando” Kelly, the first Medal of Honor recipient of World War II in the European Theater; “Pappy” Boyington, Marine fighter ace; and Eddie Rickenbacker, air hero of the First World War. Also in attendance was Bill Seach, who received the Medal of Honor for fighting his way into the citadel of Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion 1900.
At the time, there were about 450 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. Today, there are only 118, most of whom are in the winter of their lives.
Statistically, there will be half that number in five years, and none in fifteen years. Since the end of the war in Vietnam, there have been only three awards of the Medal, all posthumously.
The world has changed, and with it has changed the nature of military service. The surviving veterans of the Second World War are the remnants of a legion of nearly 20 million comrades.
Almost one of every six U.S. citizens was under arms during WWII, and it was difficult to encounter a household that didn’t have a member in the Service.
Today, with about 1.6 million men and women serving, only one citizen in 175 is in a military uniform.
Unlike the America of the 1940s, our country today is in the uneasy circumstance of being defended by a tiny number of young people. Very few of us know soldiers … and far fewer still are soldiers.
We have been attacked at home, we are at war, and we honor this Veterans’ Day the magnificent patriots who serve us on many dangerous fields abroad.
And yet, while we honor our troops, those who served 60 years ago find it difficult to understand fully the modern American way of war.
My father served in the South Pacific, in New Guinea and the Philippines, during the Second World War. He and his generation find the current use of the military instrument of power to be a confusing enterprise.
The war against the Axis had as its objective a simple and very specific objective: unconditional surrender.
We vowed that enemy nations would resist only in the certainty that they would be destroyed utterly. There was only one of two fates, surrender or death, and all strategies and tactics were devised to achieve our enemies’ complete subjugation.
In the 60 years since we won the war, none of our major conflicts has been fought to achieve such a simple objective, and in no case has there been an unlimited use of military power.
Among older veterans, this causes a peculiar form of dissonance. Military forces are for destroying the enemy, and if we are not meant to unleash overwhelming military force to achieve our objectives, what is the point of using force at all?
These old vets see little approbation in the observation that the military is a blunt instrument, and they chafe when they perceive that the use of our troops is hamstrung by sophisticated and changing rules or directed to achieve goals that are only vaguely defined.
To many veterans, the nuanced vagaries of modern international politics, and the attendant ambivalence with which military force is regarded by national leaders, are convoluted frustrating, even painful.
And yet we understand that we have been wildly fortunate to produce, generation after generation, young people who defend us valiantly, with little recompense, shifting guidance, and no recognition — save on a single day in November.