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A day to honor veterans [Editorial]

A few weeks back, when Congress came to an agreement on budgetary issues as the national government inched ever closer to the prospect of a large scale default for the first time since the Articles of Confederation government, the deal was characterized as one reached at the 11th hour.

Reaching a deal at the last-minute has come to be known as an 11th hour agreement, a turn of phrase that, like many, has its roots in military history.

It is common to refer to a certain kind of no-win situation, especially one with an ironic twist, as a Catch-22. Now part of the language, Catch-22 was the name of a darkly comic novel by World War II veteran Joseph Heller about his experiences flying bombing missions over Europe as part of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Published in 1961, the novel had a working title of Catch-18 prior to its full length debut. There's no way of knowing if the original title would have become as much a part of American English as Catch-22. As it stands, though, we have a veteran to thank for a useful term.

Similarly growing out of the experience of serving in the U.S. armed forces is a word whose origin cannot necessarily be traced to a particular time, place or person: snafu. There are those who say it should actually be written SNAFU, as it stands for a wiseacre situational report sent back to headquarters: situation normal, all [fouled] up.

The more commonly used f-word in less-than-official service status dispatches was also cleansed from certain works penned by those who served, perhaps most famously in the case of World War II veteran Norman Mailer, who was obliged to used the three-letter word fug to replace a four-letter f-word fighting men used to salt and pepper their speech.

While the novel is something of a mainstay of American literature, fug never really caught on like Catch-22 or snafu or 11th hour.

The 11th hour, of course, dates to the world war before that of Mr. Mailer and Mr. Heller, that being World War I, or as it was known before there was a second such conflict to compare it to, the Great War. The first world war's official conclusion came on June 28, 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, but the fighting had stopped months prior to that when a cease fire agreement went into effect on Nov. 11, 1918 at 11 a.m., the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It was somewhat notorious because the deal had been struck many hours prior to 11 a.m. Nov. 11 and announced the previous day. Perversely, fighting continued, and personnel continued to be killed, pretty much right up until the 11th hour.

Possibly, it is the experience of living with the threat of being killed at any moment, even right up until being sent home at the end of a tour of duty, that gives veterans a perspective that allows for the writing of some very poignant works of literature. Before Heller, Mailer and a dozen or so other authors of substantial literary heft came out of World War II, the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos were witness to World War I.

Stephen Crane, born in 1871, became fascinated by the carnage of the Civil War and penned a key war novel of the late 1800s, "The Red Badge of Courage." The badge, much sought after by the story's protagonist who desires the glory associated with battle, is, of course, the blood stain of a fatal bullet wound to the chest.

The contribution to American letters by people who have served the nation in harm's way is legion, having shaped not only the perspectives of subsequent generations, but also the very language we speak.

Substantial though this contribution may be, it is, to a certain degree, but a byproduct of the larger contribution made by all the veterans who have served over the generations. Monday marks the 95th anniversary of the day of the 11th hour armistice, and it is also the day, according to a proclamation establishing its modern observance as Veterans Day, set aside "in order that a grateful Nation might pay appropriate homage to the veterans of all its wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this Nation."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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