Words fail. We struggle to find them, but we end up caught between sorrow and admiration, guilt and gratitude.
For here is the tragic truth: The men and women of our Armed Forces have never failed us — but we have all too often failed them.
Veterans Day has come again, with its painful mingling of grief and glory.
Millions of Americans now living have served their country, at risk to their lives.
Others still fall each week, as the longest war in our nation’s history grinds on in Afghanistan.
The 1.5 million Americans now serving continue to honor the traditions of the most powerful fighting force in the history of the planet. In this era of the all-volunteer professional Army — less than 1 percent of this nation’s population continues to safeguard the liberties not just of these United States, but of the whole free world.
Because these few have borne such a grave burden, the world has enjoyed more than half a century of global peace. Granted, brush fire wars have burned and smoldered and flared in all that time. But in the decades since this nation assumed so large a share of the world’s burden, we have fended off global conflicts and unlimited conventional wars.
Winston Churchill said of the pilots who in Britain’s darkest hour held back the Nazi onslaught that “never before in human history have so many owed so much to so few.” We could say much the same thing of our Armed Forces and those who have served with such honor, courage and skill.
But that covers only the gratitude and the admiration. We must also measure our guilt and our sorrow.
Veterans comprise 16 percent of the legions of the homeless in this richest of nations.
Veterans returning home from service in Iraq and Afghanistan far too often must struggle to find jobs, stunned to discover that even decorated combat medics must spend years acquiring civilian credentials to get work as paramedics.
A dismaying number of our returning veterans must struggle with lingering emotional, physical and mental wounds. The Department of Veterans Affairs spends billions upon billions tending to their injuries, but still falls far short of the terrible need.
Oh, we civilians make a fuss on Veterans Day — at least those who straggle down to the ceremonies. And we at least learned from Vietnam not to blame those who serve for the blunders of the policy makers.
The American taxpayers spend nearly $1 trillion each year on our military forces, which includes huge sums binding up the wounds combat inflicts on body, mind and soul. We spend almost as much on our military each year as all the rest of the world combined — roughly 43 percent of global military spending according to a tally by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
We have built a terrible tool with this vast treasure and this outpouring of devotion. And beyond all the help we owe those who have served, we must never neglect our most urgent responsibility: We must not squander such courage, such devotion. We must not send them to fight the wrong war, in the wrong place, for the wrong reasons. We must not cast their lives carelessly away. We must ask so terrible a thing only defense of liberty, of our homes, of our children.
We have in times past failed in this sacred obligation to them.
So let us resolve to never fail them again — as they have never failed us when we have cried out.