Every November 11 the nation pretends to observe Veterans’ Day. This charade parallels the ubiquitous yellow bumper stickers that avow “We Support Our Troops.” Yes, indeed, all the way to the cemeteries, and amputee and paraplegic wards, as well as to lifelong psychic and spiritual distress! If we really were concerned not to impose such curses on our fellow citizens, and horror on many civilians, we wouldn’t allow wars to be waged in the name of lies. While a clear majority wants the troops home, polls declare, this has not resulted in any public demonstration of demand to achieve this result, so the death toll creeps up inexorably every week, while almost nothing is said of the maimed, though the indifference to the toll on Muslim civilians taken by our drones in many countries appears to indicate approval of high tech murder if that might keep our own casualties lower.
Consider the outraged coverage of the shooting of the young Pakistani teen who advocated education for girls. Our bombs and now drones have been shredding and torching children for generations. No problem with that! There is no equivalent today of the chant of yore “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today.” Many 19 year olds in uniform at that time felt this mantra should have taken them into account too.
A glance at statistics that appear every day in the press puts the lie to any genuine public or official concern for veterans, to speak only of suicide rates that top the battlefield deaths, or the sheer numbers of claims filed for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or lengthy backlogs for appointments at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs hospitals and neighborhood drop-in clinics, or the unemployment levels among vets, the acute substance abuse etc. It was bad enough that most Americans fell for the lies and distortions propagated by the Bush Administration after 9-11; worse that all the citizens who claim that the economy is central to their concerns cannot deduce that the trillions spent on wars have much to do with the state of their finances and the government’s. When we went through this before, after Vietnam it was tragic; the current sham is travesty.
The reality about Veterans Day is that it is mostly Veterans, and some family members, who actually do observe it. Some, seeing military service as a significant, if not the most significant, highlight of their lives, do so because they want respect from society that they do not get otherwise, often from their current occupations. Clusters of (nearly all) males appear at civic ceremonies wearing their “I was there” ribbons and other military paraphernalia. Yet relatively few Purple Hearts are in evidence or badges of courage like Silver or Bronze Stars. In my experience this is because many who have ‘borne the battle’ find such rituals either too emotionally exhausting, or view them as empty formalities. Many others as the day approaches are overtaken with acute anxiety and depression. For this group, memories that have taken years of struggle to pacify suddenly intensify and take over, and though such veterans may participate in services or public events the psychic toll on them is considerable. Some, like the members of the national organization Veterans for Peace decry the public rituals as valorizations of militarism and glorifications of what they have experienced as the worst humanity has to offer.
For the rest of the nation Veterans Day is just another day off or a non-event, the original meaning of the day long since lost. Ever since 9-11 and the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops overseas many communities have tried to revive what they consider old-fashioned patriotism and promote parades replete with local elements of the National Guard, and sometimes crack regular units with more spit and polish. These days if youngsters attend such ceremonies they are more than likely the members of the parade like the Boy and Girl Scouts, or high school band, and are treated to earfuls of nationalistic (if not xenophobic) bombast about “our heroes’ who are keeping the barbarian hordes from the gates.
Readers may recall Ron Kovic’s description in Born On the Fourth of July of the parades he witnessed as a young boy and the chauvinistic sentiment they encouraged in him. But youngsters today do not see the equivalent of the opening scene of the film of the same name. At first we see the marching band, hear the martial music, watch the pretty
majorettes twirling their batons. But then come the armless veterans, the wizened and haggard from too much booze and too many unfiltered cigarettes, and the paralyzed. Kovic, himself a paraplegic veteran of the Vietnam War (and profoundly trenchant opponent of it and all American wars since), plays a paraplegic veteran of the Korean War who winces when firecrackers explode near him.
Discomfiting scenes like this are not to be witnessed in the real America today, nor in the films, television programs, and obscene video games that exalt bloodshed. Is it any wonder that active duty soldiers who pilot drones from stateside computers refer to their targets as “bug splat?” The hyper-nationalistic atmosphere, mindless dogmatism, and pure mendacity in the manufactured culture today makes the Cold War environment that drew Kovic and far too many of our generation into war and militarism seem tame.
The origin of civic commemorations related to war goes back to the aftermath of the Civil War when Decoration Day was declared to memorialize the Union dead. Later this name was changed to Memorial Day but today it is observed mainly as the date marking the onset of summer and beach-going. When the “Great War” of 1914-1918 ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in ceasefire, the U.S. Congress declared November 11 thereafter as Armistice Day. Yet, the various treaties signed in the aftermath of World War I settled nothing so it was a mere generation before the second round began, soon known as World War II. With over 400,000 American dead, and countless numbers of wounded and maimed in body and spirit, Congress voted to change the day’s name to Veterans’ Day, to “honor” the memory of the dead and all who served. Judging from speeches made at the time the intent of some was to make the day one of, if not national mourning, then solemnly elegiac in its recognition of the enormous costs and consequences of war.
Both of my parents served in the armed forces during World War II. My mother as a Wave (U.S. Navy) detailed to Washington, D.C. and my father a Marine wounded in the harrowing, savage and ruthless combat (on both sides) of the Pacific War. He had the “thousand yard stare” to prove it too, and all the other afflictions, bodily and spiritual, that the actuality of war engenders. While he was “proud” of his service and though he joined the Disabled American Veterans, he abjured all the rituals of Veterans’ Day and the public atmosphere clearly made him depressed.
My father kept his globes and anchors, chevrons, ribbons (the medals to accompany them never arrived), and dog tags in a cardboard cigar box in the rear of his dresser drawer. When my brothers and I discovered them, and, under the influence of the faux cinematic war of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, we knew we had to earn such badges of manhood ourselves. We pestered him for tales of grit and mettle only to be answered with a dismissive shake of the head and a pained face. These were the most sacral emblems of courage imaginable; how could he not revel in his valiant triumph? Yet when nightmares rocked the house, and bouts of heavy drinking, and V.A. hospitalizations, and job loss and economic hardship arrived, we in our own distress pronounced this as evidence of his intrinsic faults. That the bestial depravity of his hand- to-hand combat a decade earlier had anything to do with his state of mind and soul escaped us until we ourselves endured the wringer of military “service,” which if, we are honest, is more like servitude, especially when carried out in the name of lies.
I am brought to mind here of a story told by Wallace Terry, author of Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, many years ago. His audience was a crowded auditorium of veterans, many of them the emerging writers who would bring the Vietnam War to novels, poetry and history as they experienced it. An African-American reporter for Newsweek, Terry had been detailed to Vietnam to write a story about racism in the military. Interviewing a Marine Corps general he was told “Mr. Terry, there is no racism in the Marine Corps. In the Marine Corps we treat everybody like niggers.” The house exploded in raucous laughter, not least from the marine veterans, black and white.
A sad commentary but true. Though many fewer in number than the army troops, marines had the highest rate of deaths and casualties in Vietnam. This is usually held up as a matter of great pride in the corps, but it underscores the brutal fact that the cogs in the “mean green killing machine” are as fully replaceable, and no more “valuable,” to their masters than the other mass produced industrial and technological instruments of war.
This Veterans Day I will once again march with the Major General Smedley D. Butler Brigade, he of our axiom “War is a Racket: A Few Profit, the Many Pay.” For more than a generation now, as the Boston chapter of Veterans for Peace, we have marched at the end of the line of the official city parade, banned by its officials from taking approved part, behind the dung of the mounted police horses, behind the street sweepers, to challenge the ever thinning crowds to put an end to the con and hustle once and for all.
Paul Atwood is Interim Director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, and faculty in the American Studies Department, University of Massachusetts-Boston, and member of the Smedley Butler Brigade, the Boston chapter of Veterans for Peace. He is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.