The current week has seen an annual observance, Veterans Day, that comes as close as any other occasion, holiday or otherwise, or as any other celebration, religious or secular, to unifying the American population in solemn purpose.
Everybody seems willing, for a single day, to forget the controversies that have surrounded almost all of the nation's wars and to honor the brave and dutiful men and women who have risked, and often lost, their lives in defense of the nation's realm or, failing that, of its policy.
November 11th is set as the date for this annual remembrance — for the reason that it was on this date in 1918 that an armistice was signed between the Allied powers, which by that time included the United States, and the German Empire, at that point a republic dissolving in revolution. It was the formal end of what we now refer to as the First World War but which at the time was called the Great War — a term that made perfect sense until 20 years later when a greater, more terrible, and even more widespread conflict came along, the Second World War, featuring most of the same participants and a few more for good (or bad) measure.
Armistice Day, the holiday was called, until 1954, when the wise old soldier who was then serving as the nation's president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, thought it more appropriate to honor the nation's veterans in all its conflicts than to fixate on the cease-fire that ended only one of them. From that time forward, November 11th has been Veterans Day.
For the record, the number of American deaths in the First World War totaled 116,516; in the Second World War, the total was higher: 405,399. These are formidable numbers, but they are dwarfed by the body count in America's Civil War, in which the total of Union and Confederate dead came to 625,000 — all subtracted from a much smaller population than would be the case in the later wars.
For the record, too, the major European nations involved in the First World War all suffered deaths in the millions — one good reason why the much-belabored doctrine of "appeasement" took hold in the victor nations, desperate for a healing period that might last longer than a mere generation.
Now here's the really horrific detail about the date of November 11th — one little known but much discussed among historians. The 1918 Armistice was arranged by the Allies to be signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and the debate rages as to whether that time sequence was coincidental or deliberately chosen for the symbology of the numbers. Those who believe the latter to be the case do not fail to note that additional tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths occurred on both sides of the armistice line from the time of the initial peace feelers until the ceremonial putting of pen to paper.
Still, it is a solemn date, and any day set aside to honor our veterans is a good one.