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It’s taken 50 years to muster the courage to say this | OPINION
Veterans Day has passed so it’s now okay for me to come out of hiding. It’s been 60 years since I became a war veteran and for most of the last 50 years I’ve dodged Veterans Day, not because veterans don’t deserve recognition but because for many, the day has become a celebration of militarism. It should be a time of quiet reflection. War is hell and deserving of solemn remembrance.
I served in Korea. My little Signal Corps camp was nearly identical to TV’s MASH compound. Though our main duties were other than shooting, that didn’t stop us from getting shot at now and then. One of my friends was shot in the right hand and another took a bullet in the foot. And we had some non-fatal injuries when our makeshift NCO Club got bombed. What happened to neighboring units and civilians was far uglier. End of the war stories.
I was proud to be recognized on Veterans Day of 1954 and a few years after that. But something in speeches and news coverage began to bother me. I found that remembrance of fallen troops was sharing the stage with macho posturing glorifying America’s superiority in combat. War is too dirty to glorify. And before orators speak of fighting to preserve liberty and keep the nation safe, they really need to do a closer reading of modern history.
I happened to be in a jam-session south of Marysville on November 10th. When a bombastic Vets’ Day speaker said, “ … you veterans make us proud of an America that doesn’t take any crap off anybody.” His audience cheered, whistled and clapped. I shrank into my shell and left without playing a note. He’d taken the music right out of me.
Each of the three Big Wars of American history lasted about four years. Forty-nine years passed between the Civil War and WWI. Twenty-seven years separated WWI and WWII and history taught us the reason for each those three conflicts.
So far in this young century we’ve invaded or bombed 15 different foreign sites. In the 1990s there were 15 more such incidents and 14 more in the 1980s. It slacks off to only eight in the ‘70s but you get the picture. We’ve logged 142 military incursions since 1890. We’ve made war a large part of our culture but as the record shows, wars are seldom matched by achieving peace.
Five wars in more recent history (Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq) share the dubious distinction of being founded on shaky foundations. In each, America sent troops to fight in defense of warped intelligence or fabrications. As Vietnam illustrated, once in, leaders find it difficult to confess error and call the troops home.
On Veterans Day we mourned the loss of 4,486 Americans who died in combat in Iraq. I wonder if Iraqis have a special day to mourn the 120,000 civilians who lost their lives to the same conflict. As our losses are surely noted in American history textbooks, Iraqis certainly study their losses as well. This is why I collect foreign history books when traveling.
Militarism deeply infects American culture. It’s a dominant theme in movies, TV, literature, popular fictional heroes, rap lyrics, guns and camo-clothing. Neighborhood cops’ outfits mimic frontline troops. With a military that’s larger than the combined forces of the next 20 national war machines, it takes a massive industrial complex to keep the troops supplied and the military is its cash-cow, generating obscene profits for the well-connected. The fabric that declares wars and profits from them has the clout to keep steering national policy in unholy directions.
I think of wartime heroes who selflessly demonstrated courage in battle or sacrificed personal safety to care for comrades. I weep for the wounded. And I think of the mail-truck driver in Iraq who was fiddling with his iPod when he lost a leg to a roadside IED. All return home as heroes because celebrating returning vets helps to justify a war, no matter how ill-conceived it might be.
It was in 1954 that I first heard a speaker address a group of us veterans as true heroes. I couldn’t accept that. I’d served my tour of duty (plus an extension) and was shipped home as something less than a hero. Few of us, and it doesn’t count whether we come home dead or alive, are true heroes.
So I choose to spend Veterans Days in solemn respect for the true heroes while damning chest-thumpers who put them in harm’s way to secure national interests — which translates as securing economic advantage.
No doubt about it, American society suffers from societal violence and militarism. They are connected, you know. But we cannot entirely heal these ills unless we fix the system that made us this way.
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