Learning about sacrifice on Veterans Day

By Naomi Coquillon
Doughboy uniform in khaki and green with helmet and gas mask

Doughboy uniform from World War I with helmet and gas mask

As Veterans Day approaches, I have found myself reflecting on the common practice of having grade school students interview veterans for class projects. 

As I thought about this and about how our education team might address the holiday, I stumbled on a book of startlingly vivid poems by Siegfried Sassoon, a British veteran of the First World War. With the question of interviewing veterans in my mind, I was struck by this excerpt from “Footnote on the War (On Being Asked to Contribute to a Regimental History).” The poem is Sassoon’s initial response to a request to submit his recollections of the war to a colleague. In the end, he did offer his remembrances, but this response is worth considering as we ask veterans to return to painful places, to remember so that the nation will not forget:

“He asks me to contribute my small quota
Of reminiscence. What can I unbury?…
Seven years have crowded past me since I wrote a
Word on war that left me far from merry.
And in those seven odd years I have erected
A barrier, that my soul might be protected
Against the invading ghosts of what I saw
In years when Murder wore the mask of Law…

…War’s a mystery
Beyond my retrospection. And I’m going
Onward, away from that Battalion history
With all its expurgated dumps of dead:
And what remains to say I leave unsaid.”

February 1926

Published in Sassoon, Siegfried. The War Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1983.
(Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis)

Of course, speaking about an experience can be part of healing. Many veterans who participate in oral history projects, such as the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, are glad to provide their stories, partly as a way of unburdening themselves of these difficult experiences. Moreover, they appreciate having their service recognized, which is one of the greatest values of these interviews. But, I think we must be careful to ensure that these student projects include not only veneration but also an honest introduction to the consequences (personal and political) of military action.

VetsD Day
American troops landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Robert Capa

In a previous position at another institution, I helped oversee a WWII oral history project with students. Some of our interviewees had never shared their experiences, but because of the rate at which their comrades were beginning to pass away, a sense of obligation to tell the story, and a recognition that time had separated them from the experiences, the veterans agreed to speak with us. You could, at times, still hear the pain in their voices, the sadness of the experience, sixty-plus years later. While we rightly celebrate the sacrifices of veterans on this day, sometimes I think the significance and true meaning of that sacrifice gets lost. And, perhaps we fail to acknowledge the extent to which sharing the experience sometimes is a sacrifice itself. Looking back on our project, I wonder if we did enough to help our students understand this.

In the end, if we approached war in all its complexity and were less afraid to address its reality, perhaps we would raise children more cautious of its perils. In The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, the museum’s exhibition on American military history, our learning resources include a lesson comparing veterans’ experiences from World War I and Vietnam, with interviews of Vietnam veterans and WWI footage included. We hope this will be a useful start to conversations for this holiday, and a chance to help students better understand the conflict that prompted it. For those planning an oral history project, suggestions are included in Engaging Students with Primary Sources, our online guide to working with original materials with a K-12 audience.

Naomi Coquillon is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History.