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It is also an opportunity that we didn’t earn entirely- or even mostly- by ourselves. The respect and trust we have earned is mainly interest on investments made at Chosin and Ia Drang and the skies over Germany and waters of Midway. It is our debt as much as our due.
Yet we keep adopting this attitude we amassed this amazing fortune of goodwill in one generation; and that our country is now in arrears of some inestimable amount that it can never repay. Everywhere I turn, I see veterans return to the classroom and tell their classmates that they shouldn’t speak of what they can’t understand. I see service associations fight Congress at every turn when they try to cut military benefits or budgets, in order to salvage the finances of the same country we swore our lives to. I see former comrades – who I know exaggerated their disabilities when they left the service – expect the VA to provide world-class service overnight.
We enlisted and commissioned to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It was a commitment for patriots, a contract of honor, and no one can say that that honor has not been paid back to us by the nation. If you also had other motivations, as we all did, whether to pursue adventure, economic opportunity, or something else, you can’t claim that America did not live up to its bargain there, either. If you looked for it, there was plenty of excitement, and you can’t compare our treatment to any other generation of veterans and claim that we have not received fair economic compensation either.
Constantly playing the “aggrieved veteran” card further degrades the support of a “home front” that veterans of WW II took for granted. If war is something that only affects our all-volunteer military, then it is easy for the rest of the country to ignore it, sending their most talented sons and daughters to go work on a better version of Candy Crush while our recruiters struggle to find high school graduates who can pass an ASVAB and a PFT.
Contrary to what some over-eager supporters of the military say, it’s not correct that they “can never do enough to thank us.” That’s true for the sons, daughters, widows, and parents in Gold Star families, and true for those of us who have suffered disabling wounds – but for the rest of us, I think we should and can say the mission has been accomplished. There are other things to talk about.
When we go to war, the costs are borne as much by the civilians in whose countries we are fighting as they are by the soldiers doing the fighting. When we turn all discussion of war in our country to a discussion about our veterans, we encourage the fallacy that war is something that only happens between two armies. When we pretend that war is only about the combatants, we allow our country to ignore the costs that will have to be faced by families in Kirkuk and Kabul, and we absolve them of responsibility for the damage that war inflicts on civilians – damage that often weighs just as heavily on our minds as the loss of our comrades does.
I can think of no better reason for us to engage in armed conflict overseas than if necessary to prevent our families from falling prey to the terror that befell Iraqi and Afghani civilians. Likewise, a need to ameliorate that misery for other societies can be a just *casus belli,* along with a case of defending freedom or human rights. However, all of these justifications must obviously be balanced against the costs that military action imposes on all parties: on civilians – foreign and domestic – as well as on our military.
As long we keep acting as if it is all about us and whether we’ve been accorded our due respects, though, we tilt those scales. If we want our country to be as much involved in the “war effort” as it was in World War II, then we need to accept armed conflict as a national responsibility, not just some badge that veterans earn that comes along with some good war stories, a college degree, and a free entree at Applebee’s. And let’s start with Veterans Day.
Veterans Day used to be Armistice Day when it was first inaugurated after World War I. It always had a heavy emphasis on the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought in that war, but at the time it also carried a strong connotation of a nation thankful for a reprieve from a war – a war for whose conduct and success it was equally responsible. Changed at the behest of a World War II Navy veteran in order to make sure that soldiers from all wars were honored, it has since evolved into a day where we pretend that war is something our military does.
Let’s give it back to the whole country. Let’s change the task organization, and pull the nation back into the main effort. We might have fought our battles alone, but we shouldn’t fight our wars that way. This is the one day that we have dedicated to reflecting on all of our nation’s wars. Naming it after veterans allows the rest of the country only to sympathize or to valorize us – but not to consider their responsibility for the initiation and the outcomes of our nation’s wars.
We are already honored on Independence Day and numerous other commemorations, and while we were overseas, our sacrifices were always remembered on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and any other holiday where our absence was particularly poignant. We still have our service birthdays and a twenty-four-hour vigil to remember our POW/MIAs in September. Most importantly, each of us will still have those dates we privately remember, the days that never leave us- when we lost friends and heroes; and as a nation, we will still have the last Monday in May to remember them collectively. And maybe if we clear up the meaning of November 11th, more of our countrymen will realize that Memorial Day is not just a convenient weekend to break out the grill.
So let’s make it Armistice Day again. The 11th day of the 11th month should be a day where we reflect on the awful costs of war, and honor the sacrifices made to achieve an acceptable peace – whether they were in the “Great War,” are ongoing in the “Long War,” or as part of one of the “small wars” our nation so frequently fights and so quickly forgets. Let it be a day where our whole nation remembers, where all citizens ponder the choices we will have to make in the future, and where every American considers the responsibilities they must accept if our elected officials commit us to war.
So this year, on 11NOV19, and from here on out, after friends, families, and strangers thank me for my service, after I tell them that it was my privilege to serve with the finest men and women I have ever known, I’m going to tell them that this day is theirs, too; that I simply served as a representative of our nation; and that as we remember the sacrifices of our military, we should remember theirs, too, and those of the Iraqi and Afghani civilians whose country we roamed; and that I hope they understand, honor, and fulfill their role in all of this – as free citizens of the greatest nation in history – as our country seeks a free, peaceful, and just future for itself and the world.
Here’s to peace now and in the future, and to the sacrifices made to achieve it. Here’s to Armistice Day.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 23, 2014.