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Veterans Day, 2001

November 11. Most people would probably think of this date as the two-month anniversary of “the day that changed everything”. It is also Veterans Day. It used to be called Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars”. Funny how these pronouncements can seem so foolish over time.

I have always had somewhat conflicted feelings about Veterans Day. I am a veteran, a veteran of Vietnam. I had volunteered to fight in that war, full of youthful exuberance and patriotic machismo. My grandfathers had fought in World War I, my father fought in World War II. Vietnam was my war. It was a no-brainer.

I came home from Vietnam, physically whole, thank God, but spiritually changed forever. In war, all wounds do not pierce the skin. My patriotism had been spent like chump change in a penny arcade, wasted on a futile effort in a dirty war where survival was the only measure of success. My first Veterans Day back from Vietnam, I was arrested for the first time in my life. I was arrested for trying to march in the Veterans Day parade under a banner that said Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Perhaps you can see where my ambivalence towards the day derives.

Veterans Day is a day that few notice and fewer celebrate. It is usually left to the pigeon-breasted politicians looking to score a few patriotic brownie points, and to the veterans themselves, who typically use the occasion to play the traditional role that society assigns to them–that of cheerleaders for the next war. I, for one, have never deigned to pick up the pom-poms.

A friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about this “new war”. It reminds me rather much of the old, cold one. It is not a war against a state, it’s a war against an “ism”. These are much more preferable for the politicians, allowing for sweeping rhetorical flourishes about “fighting against evil” and “defending our way of life.” Everything, however, remains conveniently amorphous, undefined. Nobody knows what “victory” means, or when it will be achieved, if ever. I hate to sound cynical, but I rather suspect that the “war on terrorism” will extend at least through the next presidential election. Don’t think George W. didn’t learn a thing or two from his father. Don’t want these wars to end too soon, and lose the popularity spike before it can do you any political good.

We have our “grand coalition” going, fragile as it may be. Of course, as in the Cold War, the coalition contains a number of unsavory governments and characters (the enemy of my enemy…). Given the fact that during the war on communism, the US managed to count among its allies some of the most totalitarian regimes and brutish louts of the latter half of the 20th century — among them, of course, old Osama himself — one wonders which of our current “grand coalition” partners will become the next international boogieman. Our former allies are now are enemies, and our former enemies are now are allies, in an Orwellian merry-go-round where the only constant is the shedding of blood.

Of course, the lies have started. Why would anyone think otherwise? In war, truth is the first casualty. What is truly astonishing is how easily people seem willing to believe them. How could anyone my age–who lived through Johnson’s Vietnam, Nixon’s Watergate, Reagan’s Iran-Contra, Clinton’s sex life–take any assertion by the government at face value? And these are only examples of the lies we caught them in. What are the lies of the “war on terrorism”? We have found out the first little one–that there was no “credible evidence” that Air Force One was a target of the terrorists. That was just a little public relations spin, so that Bush’s erratic flight around the US in the first hours after the terrorist attacks wouldn’t look so unpresidential. One wonders, of course, what the big lies are.

The national media, as usual, have suspended their skepticism in favor of playing the role of propaganda ministry for the government. One wishes they would apply their mantra “This report could not be independently verified” to the Pentagon spokesman as well as the Taliban spokesman. “The war is going well, the war is going according to plan.” This report could not be independently verified.

The bombing of Afghanistan is not a just war; it is just another war. It is yet another act of terror against the people of the world. Each innocent person that is killed must be added to, not set off against, the grisly toll of civilians who died in New York and Washington. It is a classic confirmation of the essential lesson I learned in Vietnam: that soldiers are required to do their jobs because politicians fail to do theirs. Make no mistake, the war on terrorism is the desperate act of politicians who failed miserably in the leadership responsibilities to those who elected them, and who, by the very act of starting the war, have failed us even again.

Conveniently lost in the post-catastrophe patriotic orgy orchestrated by the government is the fact that this happened because of the government’s utter failure to protect its citizens. Consider this: one of the terrorists was apparently on the FBI’s “watch list”. This man was flying in and out of the country, sometimes with an expired visa, having meetings with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague, visiting jailed terrorists in Spain, and all the while taking pilot lessons in Florida. And nobody noticed? It was a “failure of bureaucracy” they tell us. And their response? Create more bureaucracy to watch over the other bureaucracies.

It takes no deep thinker to recognize that the ham-handed retaliation our government is engaged in is precisely the reaction the terrorists were trying to provoke. They want a holy war between Islam and the West, and by God, we will help them recruit their forces. The war on terrorism will do nothing except create more terrorists, and the tragedy we have just experienced will pale in comparison to the tragedy before us.

All this will be branded by some as “unpatriotic”. I beg to differ. This is my patriotism. With all due respect to some of my well-meaning neighbors, my patriotism is more meaningful, more appropriate than the mindless flapping of ragged American flags from the antennae of SUVs and pick-up trucks. In a democracy, dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

This Veterans Day, I will think of my friend Sasha. I first met Sasha when I went to the then Soviet Union in 1988 as part of a delegation of Vietnam veterans to meet with Soviet Afghanistan veterans–Afghantsi, they called themselves. I remember the first few moments when we met at the airport in Moscow. Everything was a bit awkward and formal, neither side knowing quite what to do. Then one Afghantsi–his eyes blazing with the look I knew all too well–suddenly pulled up his shirt to show several bullet wounds. “You see these,” he said fiercely, “These bullets were fired from an America-made M-16.” One of the Vietnam veterans who accompanied me quickly pulled up his shirt. “You see these,” he said, “These bullets were fired by a Soviet-made AK-47.” The two men stared at one another briefly, then fell in each other’s arms and wept.

I remember standing in a frigid wind-swept Moscow park , my arm around Sasha, in front of a peculiarly irregular boulder, standing on end with a plaque on it. This was the Afghantsi Memorial, put up by the Afghantsi themselves when the Soviet government failed to honor their request for a government sponsored memorial. There was a large group there — Afghantsi and Vietnamsi–and the former soldiers each took turns speaking from the heart. The message from all was the same: We must honor those who died, we must take care of those who survived. We must promise to each other that our sons will never go through what we did.

Empty words, it seems. The sons of the Afghantsi are now dying in Chechnya, and the children of the Vietnamsi are soon to be Afghantsi. Yet it is the one idea I still find worth fighting for.

The most relevant way to celebrate Veterans Day is to fight to make it irrelevant.

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