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A New Unifying Paradigm?

This year the Western world observes the 90th anniversary of 11/11/11: the month, date and hour at which the guns of World War I fell silent.

“Over there,” where the dying and the destruction occurred, November 11th is still known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. “Over here,” in the U.S., it is now called Veterans’ Day – suggesting that the role played by human beings is more definitive than the event itself.

By happenstance, this year, this month, and one week before Armistice Day, in a history-making general election, U.S. voters chose Illinois Senator Barack Obama to become the nation’s 44th president and the first African-American to do so. He will be the second modern president (Bill Clinton is the other) to have no direct experience in any of the seven uniformed services of the United States. And he will be the first president in 40 years to enter the Oval Office with U.S. troops engaged daily in active combat.

What will not be new this year is the appearance in cemeteries across the country of tens of thousands of small U.S. flags placed on the graves of men and women who at some time in their lives joined or were conscripted into the armed services. Some went to war; some were killed or died far from home. Most returned and resumed their lives, but each was changed – as were the members of their families – by the common experiences that constituted their time in uniform.

Today, even after seven years fighting in Afghanistan and five in Iraq, most Americans have yet to be personally “touched” by this “experience.” Moreover, those who do share it have been called upon repeatedly to participate in the most dangerous aspect of such service – warfighting – because those who were determined “for war” arrogantly assumed they could as easily end war whenever they so decided.

It is one thing for government officials to see troops “in the field” or to talk with them after they return from combat, and quite another to be in combat (or have a loved one in danger) and to experience the absolute futility of making war to resolve disputes.

I have often puzzled over how to mobilize public sentiment to oppose the temptation to go to war that seems to pervade presidents and prime ministers. Obviously, the experience of war can have an effect on the pace of the march to the next war, but after a time going to war to hopefully prevent a future war becomes so illogical that it fails completely the “common sense” test.

Perhaps that test can be embodied in an amplified effort headed by the Veterans Administration to identify the resting place of all veterans of every war. Using the large memberships of the various veterans associations, the official records can be checked and verified, a process that inevitably will draw press attention and could stimulate non-veteran groups to participate in the effort.

This will take time, but by relying on veterans’ associations costs should be minimal. Meanwhile, in the short term, communities could expand the groups participating in the tradition of marking veterans’ graves with flags to create a “substitute” common experience, one that recognizes and honors the act of serving the nation but does not glorify the acts of war.

Eliminating war may be too revolutionary, too much of a departure from the reality that is November 11th, 2008. But it is not too radical a departure to begin laying the foundation for a new national paradigm; one that finally and completely rejects war as the ultimate unifying national experience.

Col. DAN SMITH is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.

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