Monday, November 12, 2007

Thoughts on Veterans Day.

Today is Veterans Day. It's intended as a public observation of the contributions soldiers have provided to the nation throughout history. The date of the 'holiday' is not arbitrary- it falls on the anniversary of Armistice Day, which ended World War I ("The War To End All Wars). In America it is typically employed as an occasion to show one's patriotism. On "Main Streets" all throughout the nation, people put out their flags to display their deep feelings for their country. We are reminded of the great sacrifices ordinary men and women have offered to sustain our 'freedoms'. This is the official story. Families with a tradition of military involvement will seize their opportunity to express their well-springs of pride.

My family does not have many examples of martial heroism in its recent heritage. My maternal grandfather served as a gunner's mate in the US Navy during World War II. I have some relics of his service, including several certificates he received for crossing different landmark lines on the high seas. He never talked very much to me about his experiences during the war. I know he was wounded by shrapnel in his leg, but it wasn't a debilitating or otherwise very serious injury. If he gave his time served much thought, he never displayed much indication of doing so. He never encouraged his grandsons to join the military. Neither did my father's family. My uncle served in Korea, but never mentioned that portion of his life to me. Overall, Veterans Day meant very little to me growing up. It was merely a day off from school.

Today I heard a caller on an AM talk radio program complaining about how little respect younger people have for veterans. He identified himself as 70 years old, which I guess places him as a fighter during the Vietnam War. It's not the first time I've heard someone bemoan the lack of reverence for soldiers. It's a common tactic used to implicate others' 'lack' of patriotism. If we don't love our military, then how can we love our freedoms? This guy explained that without the service of the people in the armed forces- we could be speaking German, Japanese or Vietnamese (!) right now. Interestingly I never heard him say that without the French we could be speaking with a thick British accent (even though that is arguably more realistic than his theoretical scenarios). The problem is that praising the French doesn't fit his political agenda.

Perhaps I am overly cynical. Maybe all of these sentiments are pure and selfless. But I can't help thinking about the thousands of times I've heard "Support the Troops!" over the last six years. I think it's fair to question what people mean when they say that. In reality, we all "support the troops" with massive amounts of our hard-earned tax dollars. Do they mean that they darn socks and bake pies for them too? It seems that when some self-righteous citizen says "I support the Troops!", they actually mean "I like the foreign policies of the current executive branch, and if you don't agree, then you are treasonous and hate our freedoms!" It's a code... it's shorthand, and it is meant to stifle dissent. If you don't answer with "Golly gee... I love the troops too"- then you are obviously anti-American, a Communist, or a terrorist. Go ahead and give in... you aren't actually making any sacrifice by saying you "support the troops".

So it's for that reason that I didn't wear red-white-and-blue today. I'm not waving any flags. I think nationalism is atavistic and selfish. And I honestly don't think that the troops have been put to good use in decades. We invaded and occupied a country that had not attacked us, and (furthermore) posed no threat to us. Is that something to celebrate? Should we honor the participants just for following orders? How is that supporting them? We'd do better by them if we convinced the Congress to make the President bring them home. That feat would make me feel better about this country. I'm simply not giving in to the goose-stepping spirit of knee jerk (and purely symbolic) 'support' for militarism for its own sake. Would it be appropriate for the German people to honor the loyal ranks of the Third Reich? They were putting their lives on the line too. Does it depend on what they were fighting for? Or do we just commemorate the "winners"? I'm not so sure.

Instead of bumper sticker sloganeering and unmitigated jingoism, let's observe Veterans Day by putting pressure on the administration- so that troops who are putting their lives on the line for an aggressive foreign policy will receive the adequate medical benefits they will need when they get back home. Let's make sure that there is money left over for psychological treatment and education benefits. And let's find a presidential candidate for 2008 that is willing to end the madness. That would be doing something decent for the holiday.



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