Henry Gunther, a 23-year-old German-American clerk from Baltimore, was one of the so-called doughboys — the American infantryman sent to fight in France after the United States entered World War I in 1917.
When his rifle squad came upon a German roadblock in a Lorraine village, he alone rose up and charged with his bayonet fixed. A short burst of machine gun fire cut him down 60 seconds before an armistice was due to take effect, making him the last soldier — American or otherwise — killed in the Great War.
After four long years in which some 8 million soldiers died and another 29 million were injured, the fighting ended at 11 a.m. Paris time on November 11, 1918: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
The following year Americans began observing an Armistice Day each year on Nov. 11. The holiday was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 — a day to honor the service of all U.S. military veterans.
There are about 19 million U.S. veterans. Gulf War-era veterans are now the biggest cohort, followed by Vietnam-era veterans. They make up about 7% of U.S. adults, compared to 18% in 1980 — part of a long-term decline in the percentage of Americans with military experience. The 144,000 Utah veterans are spread across each of the state’s 29 counties, with clusters along the Wasatch Front and in Washington County.
The last surviving American veteran of World War I died in 2011. About 390,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II survive, and just under 4,000 of them live in Utah. An estimated 348 World War II veterans die each day.
We honor veterans for their sacrifices, courage and professionalism. These soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen were mostly ordinary people who did extraordinary things to protect us and to advance our values and interests.
Still, veterans deserve more than reverence. Only a tiny fraction of Americans now serve in the military — less than one-half of one percent of the population. Most younger Americans today don’t even know someone who has served. This has led to a widening civilian-military gap that includes a void of understanding of the military on the part of most Americans.
Unknowing, knee-jerk reverence may explain the condemnations on behalf of the military — but not by the military — when Colin Kaepernick (and others), protesting racial injustice, kneeled during the playing of the national anthem before the start of NFL games.
Many Americans were offended, convinced the national flag should be off-limits to political displays. I’m a veteran, and I can relate. The flag, for me, is a visceral symbol of our nationhood and national unity. Americans have died fighting under that banner. I fly one outside my home. But to say that I would never do what he did is beside the point: I’ve never walked in the shoes of a black man in America.
Similar competing values — reverence for the flag versus freedom of speech — were at the heart of a landmark Supreme Court case, Texas v. Johnson. There the court struck down the criminal flag burning laws then on the books in 48 of 50 states, siding with what it called a “right to differ,” and held that expressive conduct — which would include kneeling during the national anthem —i s protected symbolic speech under the First Amendment.
We cherish the flag even more, the court argued, when we don’t give it special protection, because this forbearance strengthens the values the flag embodies. A flag’s power comes from what it represents.
Freedom of speech is a core American value, and Kaepernick’s protests advanced the promise of that value. He raised awareness and generated discussion by peaceable means, becoming part of the national conversation about inequality.
Having acted within his rights, and spurred debate, Kaepernick didn’t defile the flag or disrespect the military when he took a knee. Tolerate unpopular speech is what a free society does.
I wasn’t personally offended by his protests, which strengthened the values the flag and military represent. But I am daily offended by the current president’s corruption, immorality and incompetence, which have weakened those values.
In truth, it’s the president who has defiled the flag and disrespected the military. His betrayal of the Kurds humiliated our deployed troops (“I’m ashamed,” an Army officer said after the president’s bug out order) and endangered their safety. His smears against Lt. Col. Vindman for honoring his oath to support the Constitution harm the authority of all serving officers.
Veterans guaranteed the freedoms enjoyed by Kaepernick and every other American. They are owed a debt for all they have done. So this Veteran’s Day, by all means thank them for their service. Then repay some of that debt by justifying their sacrifices. Use those freedoms. Vote in the next election and add your voice to the national conversation. The times demand it.
David Burns lives in Salt Lake City. He is a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer.