Fresh off the closing night of their production of M*A*S*H, the group of student actors who performed the play at Burr and Burton Academy last week made for a nice addition to the folks who usually turn out for the Veterans Day observances at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post each Nov. 11. They had raised funds which will go to help construct a memorial to veterans of the Korean War, an often overlooked "conflict" which raged on the Korean peninsula between 1950-53. Technically, the war is still on. A peace treaty between the warring parties - the U.S. and its South Korean allies, and China, the Soviet Union and its North Korean partners, has never been signed. An armistice agreement forged in mid-1953 resulted in a cessation of hostilities, which from time to time threatens to heat up again - witness the sinking of a South Korean vessel by in all likelihood elements of the North Korean military in 2010.
An armistice of course, was also the genesis behind today's Veterans Day observances. That armistice, signed on Nov. 11, 1918, brought an end to the fighting of the most horrific of wars the world had seen to that point - World War I, also known as "The Great War," and the "War to end all Wars." Of course it didn't - it was merely the first of the 20th century's industrialized wars.
In Korea, the agreement to cease fighting simply re-set the border between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel, where it remains today. Who won and who lost and what did the more than 54,000 U.S. servicemen and women die for was for many years a murky question. Today "who won" seems clearer - South Korea long ago emerged as an economic powerhouse with a vastly higher standard of living than their northern cousins - a reversal of the status quo prior to the conflict. North Korea today is better known for its periodic outbreaks of famine, its occasional nuclear-emboldened fist clenching, and its autarkic government which has devolved - as best we can determine from that most secretive of countries - into a family dynasty, ruled ostensibly today by the grandson of the man who launched the misguided invasion of South Korea rather than negotiate a peaceful merger of the two nations that were artificially divided after World War II.
Think about it. Fifty-four thousand members of the U.S. armed forces killed in action. Many more wounded. And then, about 10 years later, the U.S. went back into a state of warfare on the Asian mainland, this time in Vietnam, where more than 58,000 soldiers, sailors and air force members made the ultimate sacrifice. It's sobering to reflect upon those numbers. What great things might those people have gone on to do throughout their lives if they had had the chance? We will never know.
And it is right and proper we do reflect on that, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, made as he was making "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of the military ceremony there, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting to take place ever on American soil. These veterans in a real sense gave all so that the rest of us can go about our day-to-day lives more or less free to do what we want, to complain about the government and to make plans for the future. Many of them, if they could, would probably cringe at the label of "hero," but that's what they all were. They may not have sought to place themselves in harm's way, but once there, did their duty.
So it was good to see such a large crowd out in the parking lot of the VFW post and that so many of them were youngsters who through their participation in a school play also got some exposure to American history and its lingering impact. The simple, dignified service honored our local veterans, and reminded all that there are many more veterans of more recent conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan among them, who will be making what will be in many cases difficult transitions back to civilian life. As a nation, we seem inadequately prepared to offer the formal counseling and help that may be required due to the unusual stresses and demands of an army that has been stretched beyond its limits by repeated overseas deployments where the rules of warfare have been revised by the needs of "counterinsurgency." Warfare in the big picture may in fact, be on the verge of a sea-change, as pilotless drone aircraft and cyberwarfare become more prevalent, lethal and devastating. Somehow though, it's hard to imagine a time when a ordinary soldier with a weapon won't be needed to go and secure the next hill, and risk serious injury or worse in the process.
Last weekend we honored veterans of all conflicts and it was a chance to consider that for those who may be returning with serious wounds, some visible, some not - it's not an excuse to deny those service personnel whatever assistance may be needed - "fiscal cliff" notwithstanding. Some things are just the right thing to do.
Honoring, remembering and helping - those are without question the right things to do.