Why We Celebrate Veterans Day

Cynthia Becerra, Dean of Undergraduate Studies

Dedicated to the Memory of Laurence S. Silveira (1929-2020)

On November 11th, we as a nation celebrate Veterans Day. We do not “Mondayize” the holiday or recognize it on a different day for convenience, but on that specific day. It is important to us as Americans to come together on that date to acknowledge the men and women who have served our country as members of the armed forces.

Having a father who served in the Korean War and a husband who served in the Vietnam War, I have heard many descriptions of their experiences and even have done some research through the Korean War Project to find my father’s Army buddy who had been wounded along with him.

Probably, many of you are like me; you have a relative or close friend who has related the challenges of the battlefield with you. However, sometimes it is hard to empathize with them and to comprehend the intensity of those life-or-death moments. To appreciate more the experiences of those who have put aside their lives for me—and you, let us turn to literature to grasp a better appreciation for those who have served our country.

The Civil War (1861-1865) is still considered the most brutal war of our history. With over 620,000 casualties, it devastated our young country. Stephen Crane (1871-1900), a 19th century American author, captured the psychological angst of those who fought in that war with his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Although never in a war and born after the Civil War, the author is credited with a realistic portrayal from a third-person limited omniscient point of view.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) is one of our best-known authors who influenced our perceptions of war in his novels A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Having served as an ambulance driver in World War I and also wounded while doing so, he encapsulated both the personal and universal terrors in his works, including often anthologized short stories like “Soldier’s Home.” From the beginning, Hemingway was the war-time journalist who clarified his experiences for American readers; in fact, in 1947 he was awarded the Bronze Star in World War II for his courage in depicting a realistic image of the front lines, as noted in the commendation:  “. . .through his talent of expression, Mr. Hemingway enabled readers to obtain a vivid picture of the difficulties and triumphs of the front-line soldier and his organization in combat.”

Developed into a mini-series called War and Remembrance (1988-1989), the war-time novel of the same title by Herman Wouk (1915-2019) integrates the historical events of World War II into the stressful familial relationships among the Henrys and the Jastrows. Wouk’s work recognizes the toll that war takes on families and relationships as well as the often exaggerated romance of its genre by its popularity. However, it is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) that has been heralded as the greatest work of the 20th century. This satirical novel describes the events of a fictional U.S. Army Airforce bombardier Captain John Yossarian and his squadron. Classified as absurdist yet historical fiction, it utilizes omniscient narration through several characters’ points of view so that events are repeated from various lenses as the squadron tries to keep their sanity.

Many of you are probably familiar with M*A*S*H (1972-1983) as a television series, which starred Alan Alda as Captain Hawkeye Pierce, a surgeon in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) unit. Believe or not, my father was treated by one of those units when he was wounded by a bomb in the Korean War (1950-1953). In fact, most in my family contend that his life was saved as a result because these units were so close to the front lines and able to treat the wounded quickly. Before it was a television series, it was a book, MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors (1968), by Richard Hooker, the pen name for Dr. H. Richard Hornberger (1924-1997) and his co-writer W. C. Heinz (1915-2008). Dr. Hornberger, in fact, had been one of those surgeons assigned to the 8055 M.A.S.H.  during the Korean War. Providing insight into surviving the stress of war, the authors incorporated humor into the thematic content of their works and juxtaposed the “mass of casualties” with the cathartic pranks of doctors and nurses under such dire circumstances.

The Vietnam War, however fraught with its unpopularity, remains an enigma, in general, to the literary public because in the minds of many veterans, including my husband’s, their actions were never sanctioned by the American public. In fact, many still regard themselves as misfits because they were never welcomed back into their country with a hero’s welcome along with public support, which often fostered psychological and economic healing for servicemen and women. Most were told, as was my husband, not to wear their uniforms when they flew home because they would be cursed at in the airports and even spit upon by the not-so-admiring public. Therefore, most Vietnam Vets are unwilling to share their stories let alone articulate them in print for fear of further ostracization and public condemnation. But Ron Kovic, author of Born on the 4th of July (1976), a Marine, captures in his novel the brutality of the war and the difficulty of re-entering his American life as a paralyzed veteran. In an excerpt entitled “On Patrol,” he chronicles the events of a single military action, resulting in civilian casualties, and its effects on the character Sergeant Molina, as exemplified in the following: “Forgive us for what we’ve done.”

Molina’s cry for forgiveness magnifies the feeling of helplessness and the ultimate challenge for anyone who has served in combat. I have heard it from many a soldier, including my father and my husband, even though the soldier’s actions can be seen as his/her duties “to defend and serve.” As I stated before, I will never fully understand the veterans’ experiences, but I feel that I owe them at least the responsibility to try. Ultimately, literature provides the rest of us the opportunity to do so.