Recognizing the Good: Veterans Day

November 12, 2012
Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I vet...

Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

הכרת הטוב, Hakarat Hatov, means “recognizing the good.” It’s the Hebrew phrase we use to convey the concept of gratitude. Our tradition encourages us to appreciate every bit of good is in our lives, no matter how many legitimate complaints we may have.

November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day because it was the day that the hostilities of WWI stopped. The Treaty of Versailles would not be signed for months, but the people of every nation involved in that war had learned to recognize the goodness of peace. One of the causes of the war had been the tendency of international leaders to forget that war is horrible: they were focussed on potential gains, offended honor, and on their alliances. WWI was a terrible lesson, with more terrible lessons to follow.

In 1958 in the United States, President Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day, in order to include the veterans of WWII and Korea in the appreciation. It became a day to recognize the good in each of those individuals, and the goodness of their gift to the rest of us. When a soldier is drafted or enlists in the military, he or she takes the oath of enlistment:

I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

This oath effectively limits the exercise of many constitutional rights that ordinary citizens enjoy. A soldier in uniform cannot criticize the President or the military, and must be careful about doing so out of uniform. A soldier must follow all lawful orders (and must be prepared to justify in court why an order was not lawful if he does not follow it.)  Search and seizure are perfectly legal on a military base. Most Americans would chafe mightily at these restrictions and others under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  Military service requires the voluntary relinquishment of freedoms the rest of us take for granted.

Add to that the hazards of serving a nation at war: the physical and mental toll of battle, the stress of living in a war zone for an extended period of time, the strain on family relationships and friendships, and the challenge of return to civilian life, and it’s obvious that we owe our veterans many thanks.

Where we fail, though, is that often all they get is thanks. “Thank you” will not provide health care, education, housing, or mental health care. “Thank you” is cheap, but all those other things are expensive. We and our politicians are quick with thanks and lip service, but not so quick with the rest.

When I am writing a check for taxes it is easy to think about all the things the government does that I  don’t want. (I’ll spare you the list, but trust me, it’s long.) Hakarat Hatov, recognizing the good, demands I look further than the things that are bugging me. It demands that I recognize the good that those men and women have done for me, and that I make sure that enough of my taxes go to at least ameliorate their lost health and lost opportunities.  (If you think that we already take good care of our veterans, I suggest you read this earlier blog post of mine, or this article about veterans and suicide.

In Pirkei Avot 4.1, Ben Zoma says, “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has.” The question for us each Veterans Day is, do we appreciate what we have? Do we appreciate what these people have given us? And if we say we appreciate it, what are we going to do about it?


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