Those of us who are veterans and military family members, and I am both, have a special responsibility this Veterans Day.
We need to honor our veterans without idealizing them, because idealizing does much to erase the reality that was (and is) our story. Instead of honoring us as heroes on pedestals this Veterans Day, tell our real stories. Many of us have never craved a pedestal, and we do not want our reality to be erased in yet another stage-managed orgy of nationalism designed to gain the acquiescence of the public to send yet more soldiers to risk life, limb, health, and sanity on an errand of plunder disguised as self-defense or liberation.
Many younger people are unaware that Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I. In 2003, we would do well to reflect on what exactly was ended November 11, 1918. There are lessons for us to learn from that even now. We also need to know something about what happened afterward.
Just as veterans themselves are often stripped of their human complexity, and therefore their true history, in the process of idealizing them, so is our national history frequently idealized almost to the point of being mythologized until our true history is lost. The story that World War I was undertaken for some noble purpose is just such a myth.
President Woodrow Wilson, far from being the great progressive into which official mythmaking has transformed him, was elected on a platform of unabashed white supremacy, and was an ardent public admirer of the Ku Klux Klan. Let’s just put these hard things out there first, to set the stage for his decision to commit US troops to World War I.
For the first three years of the war, Wilson himself said there was no appreciable moral difference between the Allies and the Germans. Wilson was elected for his fierce defense of the subjugation of Blacks, and also on the merit of his opposition to entering the war.
But during the conflict the Allies borrowed heavily from US banks, purchased vast amounts of materiel from US companies on credit, and took loans with the US Treasury Department. By 1917, it became apparent to the US that the Allies could lose the war, which would cause them to default on billions of dollars of debt owed to both public and private entities in the US, which might precipitate a domestic economic collapse.
The American public was whipped up into a war fever with claims that Germany now presented an imminent threat to the security of the United States, and by 1918 Congress was stampeded into passing the Sedition Act that clamped own on the press, criminalized discouragement of the purchase of war bonds, and jailed political opponents. 116,563 American soldiers died so war profiteers could collect their debts.
After the war, the US financial establishment refused to cancel the debts of the devastated Allies, who in turn imposed hellish reparations payments on Germany to offset their payments. The US political establishment followed the self-serving advice of Wall Street and the corporations and plunged the world into a deep and destabilizing economic crisis, setting the stage for the rise of extreme racial nationalism in Germany. Two decades later, the world was plunged into another sea of blood and fire.
Before, during, and after.
Before, there were schemes and lies. During, there was death and destruction. After, there was destabilization that led to deeper destruction. In exchange for their lives, limbs, health, and sanity, the veterans got a pedestal that erased the trenches, the lice, the mustard gas, the blood, the nightmares… all of it.
Perhaps if we quit erasing history, we can stop repeating it.
STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and of the upcoming book “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee, a retired Special Forces master sergeant, and the father of an active duty soldier. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Goff can be reached at: email@example.com