Why Veterans Day 2014 has an extra note of solemnity

Call it war or not, America is in a different place this November than last.

Evan Vucci/AP
A member of the honor guard waits for the arrival of visitors to the annual Veterans Day Observance Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. Americans marked Veterans Day on Tuesday with parades, speeches and military discounts, while in Europe the holiday known as Armistice Day held special meaning in the centennial year of the start of World War I.

It’s Veterans Day again, but with some extra depth to the solemnity: America is again on war footing, albeit with an emphasis on air strikes rather than “boots on the ground.”

A year ago, few Americans were familiar with the group known as Islamic State. Today the military gains IS has made in Iraq as well as Syria have prompted a new chapter in America’s campaign to counter the threat of Islamist extremism and terror.

President Obama, after seeking to preside over withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, is again waging a military effort in that region. He’s asking Congress for new money “to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” And publicized beheadings by IS – including of US journalists – have stirred shock and concern on the US homefront.

Call it war or not, America is in a different place this November than last.

The nation is saying thank you to its military vets in a more ambiguous national-security climate. Mr. Obama has brought forces home, and he has voiced determination not to put US ground forces into direct combat against IS. Yet boots are on the ground in Iraq in an advisory role in the conflict, and the president is seeking to roughly double their number to 3,000. Air strikes against IS continue. 

And Americans have grown more concerned about their nation’s security, with the rise of IS paralleled by other signs of turbulence abroad in 2014, from kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria to the adventurism of Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll just before the Nov. 4 election found 76 percent of registered voters saying that national security would have high importance in their choice of candidates – just behind the economy/jobs as an issue of priority and well ahead of other issues such as immigration or the Affordable Care Act.

In short, America’s role in the world – notably its military posture – is again a matter of substantial political debate.

When defense-budget gurus opined recently in the publication Politico, some called firmly for a spending boost to allow the US to confront IS in the Middle East while also maintaining strength to deter potential conflicts elsewhere.

“As the current turmoil in the Middle East has demonstrated beyond doubt, it is those hostile to the West who invariably fill the vacuum that is created by an inward-looking America,” said Dov Zakheim, a former Defense Department official under George W. Bush., now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Even some defense experts who caution against alarmism say looming budget caps on defense, imposed by a congressional deal known as sequestration, should be eased.

The 2014 Veterans Day comes in the year marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the conflict that helped launch the US holiday. Where Memorial Day each spring is a remembrance for those who gave their lives in the nation’s defense, Veterans Day (originally called Armistice Day after the 1918 peace agreement) is designed to honor all those who have served the US military.

Another twist this year: In addition to parades and ceremonies around the nation, the holiday comes as the Veterans Affairs department is announcing a major restructuring aimed at fixing long delays in health care for veterans. 

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