On Being a Veteran

Preface:  Let me say this post has been stuck in my head for some time.  Perhaps years.  Maybe too glum for most, and certainly not in tone with most of my usual writings.  Still I felt the need to put my feelings into words.  If for nothing else to achieve some clarity of mind on a subject that I wrestle with often.

I assume most reading this blog know the history behind the Veterans Day holiday.  If not, the short version is that in 1954, Congress changed Armistice Day, recalling the end of World War I, to honor U.S. Veterans of all wars.  Armistice Day is somewhat “international,” with nearly every western nation using the historic date to recognize the service of military veterans or wartime sacrifices.

Here in the U.S., I think Veterans Day gets short shrift.  Memorial Day at the end of May, with most of the country looking into the summer, overshadows the November holiday.   Sure, news programs and editorial pages will bring out stories to consider.  Banks will close.  The mail won’t run.  And restaurants around the country will offer special deals to veterans (as I shall be partaking later today).  But scant fewer parades than decades past.  And very few people taking the day off work.   Perhaps the lack of attention is due to the linkage to an almost forgotten war.   Or perhaps because the date is set on November 11 and not conveniently moved to a Monday or Friday to facilitate a three day weekend.  Or perhaps, as some have lamented, the appreciation of service has diminished since 1918 (although I will cite ample evidence to the contrary).

Personally I make it a point to take the day off from work.   In my younger days, especially while I was in the Army, I viewed this as “our” holiday.  With the inclusive pronoun indicating myself and fellow veterans.   Not in a self-centered sort of way, mind you.  Rather, from the stance that “we” needed to relate to the country what our experiences were.   And that date on the calendar was a platform for expressing such.

And what makes the veterans’ perspective differ, requiring this day?  A few years back a young man, in his twenties, pointed out to me there were many different ways to serve the country aside from military service (he was pointing to work in the government sector).  However, I responded, the duty which the soldier is called to perform is far different, in its nature, than your average government worker is apt to perform.

I’ll be blunt for brevity.  A solider, sailor, airman, or marine is trained to perform, and unfortunately many times called upon to perform, actions which are actually contrary to society’s ethical rules – killing or maiming other human beings.  And unlike law enforcement professions, the soldier is not performing those acts in the name of justice in response to wrong-doings by the targeted individual.  Rather, those acts are done on behalf of, in the name of, and with the direction of the society and are directed towards another society or nationality as a whole.

It is certainly a very fine line to draw.  When a soldier kills on the battlefield, his actions are condoned by society.  And if that same soldier returns from the battlefield and continues those actions, he is condemned by society.   In military schools, we are taught that the mark of a professional army is the sense of discipline which a soldier carries even beyond the service.  I would guess that applies here, indicating the difference between those honored on November 11 and those who are not.

Writers far more skilled than I have weighed in on the moral dilemma faced by a soldier in war.  And many a screenwriter has worked it onto film.  My personal favorite is still Sergeant York.   In the movie, starring Gary Cooper, York voices his concerns about killing when first entering the service.  Later he is asked why his stance would change.  The dialog is somewhat cumbersome compared to more recent movies.  And York’s response is awash with religious themes.  But the point is fairly addressed, regardless if you chose to discount its validity.

But the veterans story is often also awash with a double dose of “glory.”  Consider this vintage trailer from the movie in question:

“In the glorious annals of America’s most distinguished heroes….”

Almost as if we need glory to flavor the “war” in order to make it palatable.   Movie-makers, writers, and even historians will often use glorification in order to step around the ghastly aspects of the experiences.  Kevin Levin recently pointed this aspect out with respect to the Richard Kirkland “Angel of Marye’s Heights” story.  Yes, indeed, we often limit our view of war to exclude the horrors – and I for one would argue to society’s detriment in the long run.

However, there is another perspective in all this story telling.  Consider the Kirkland story, along with the Sergeant York story, and countless others told from the veterans’ perspective.   Would a person who has seen the horrors, and inflicted horrors upon his fellow man, chose to consciously disregard and downplay them?  Is this itself a silent expression of guilt or remorse?  Does a veteran have something to feel ashamed of?

On the other hand, to use the familiar story of Richard Kirkland as an example, is this not an attempt by the veteran to reconnect with his human side?  In short, to convince the listener, that in spite of the barbarities that the veteran remains human (and to be clear in the Kirkland case, a “witness” to the event and not Kirkland himself).  Proof that in spite of the grim, dark environment, which would try the morality of even the strongest individual, the veteran remained, at the core, true to the values which society has set.  Again, being blunt for brevity – that a soldier can kill his fellow man, yet not be turned into some hideous animal by that action.

Yes, in a perfect world, there would simply be no need for soldiering, and therefore no veterans.  In a perfect world we would not have wars or conflicts or contention.  In reality, until humankind develops a more peaceful way to resolve contention for resources (be those natural, economic, terrestrial or … spiritual), there will be wars, and therefore a need for soldiers, who will hopefully survive to become veterans.

I’ll leave discussion of the “glorification of war” in the movies and novels for another day, and away from this blog.  But when I hear or read a veteran speak on the war, and put a bit of “glory” in the story without the “gore”, I can see where he or she is standing.  From my personal experience I know they are seeking, as I do often, some redemption and acknowledgment from a society that sent me to war.  They are seeking to know the fires which touched them, to reference Oliver Wendell Holmes well known speech, did not change their humanity.   Even while writing this post, I have a “cleansing” sense in my soul.

That is why, I believe, we as a society need those war generation monuments on the Civil War battlefields*, the doughboy statues on the courthouse squares, the war memorials on the national mall, and… well … a Veterans Day.

* Please note I make a distinction here between monuments placed by the veterans organizations and those placed by non-veteran organizations in subsequent generations.