11 November 2014

Veterans Day in perspective

It's appropriate to set a day aside to acknowledge the sacrifices made by those who fought in our country's wars and show sympathy with the survivors. In the U.S. we have two such days, one in May for those who died, and one in November dedicated, more or less, to the living. Veterans Day falls on the day of the armistice that ended World War I, and the American holiday was known as Armistice Day until 1954. The current label was adopted to include veterans of World War II and the Korean police action in the day's honors. With this came a subtle change in emphasis. Back in 1938, when Armistice Day became a holiday by law, rather than a matter of presidential proclamation, the occasion was dedicated by Congress to "the cause of world peace." Although World War II was just around the corner, World War I was still the Bad War in many memories, the conflict that seemed to have no point and in which, in retrospect, Americans had few good reasons to intervene. Yet were someone now to propose that Veterans Day observances be dedicated to the cause of world peace, I suspect that many Americans would denounce the proposition as an insult to the troops. On both Veterans Day and Memorial Day we are exhorted to show gratitude to fallen and living soldiers for having spared the country from some awful fate. Yet from the Civil War forward, with the debatable exception of World War II, the freedom and sovereignty of the nation has not been at stake in any of our wars. If you were to suggest in 1938 that these had been at stake in the Great War, veterans and civilians alike probably would have laughed at you for still believing the propaganda of Liberty Bond posters. In our time, the constant implication of holiday rhetoric is that Americans owe their freedom not merely to the obvious heroes of the Revolution, but to soldiers who have fought in our lifetime, as if our freedom, however defined, was recently in jeopardy from abroad. The more offensive subtext of such rhetoric is the warning that, since we owe our freedom to a powerful military, we really shouldn't criticize the military, nor even the government policies that send the military to war. In short, Veterans Day serves today primarily as a reminder that "freedom isn't free" and an argument for the permanent necessity of a large military establishment, because otherwise Vladimir Putin or ISIS or the Chinese will fall upon us in their hunger to dominate and oppress. To question any of these premises is to insult soldiers past and present, as far as many Americans are concerned, but to pursue provocative policies thoughtlessly and put today's soldiers at risk of combat seems like more of an insult. I understand that today's desire to thank soldiers still goes back to regret over the poor treatment given troops returning from Vietnam, but what soldiers deserve is our sympathy more than our thanks. We owe them something for sacrificing for the government, but we do not owe them in any way that binds us to militarism or an ideologically aggressive foreign policy -- and I doubt many of them would ever call in such a debt. For that, probably, we should thank them.

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