He’s five foot two and he’s six foot four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of thirty-one and he’s only seventeen
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years
— Buffy Sainte-Marie, “Universal Soldier”
Ambivalent about Veterans Day? No shit.
From time to time I see this sticker on car and truck bumpers: If you love your freedom thank a vet. I was born in 1951, six years after end of the war widely referred to as “good.” The connection between freedom and fighting Nazi Germany is pretty obvious. But the wars waged by my country during my lifetime have at best a tenuous connection with freedom, unless we’re talking about the freedom of U.S. corporations and their friends to control markets in the rest of the world. U.S. corporations aren’t the “you” being addressed here, however, and many vets would strenuously object to the notion that corporate interests had anything to do with their being shot at.
The risks and horrors of war need a more glorious justification. Freedom.
When I see that bumper sticker I think: If you love your freedom, thank the drafters of the Bill of Rights. Thank Susan B. Anthony, Mother Jones, Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King Jr., the ACLU, and everyone else who keeps freedom alive by living it. Each person who exercises her freedom expands mine, perhaps by challenging unjust laws, perhaps by inspiring me and giving me courage. Most of these people didn’t have an army behind them. Some of them had opponents with superior weaponry pointing guns in their direction.
I think: How many of us do love our freedom? Plenty of us shrink from it at every opportunity: the further we get from the bumper sticker, the scarier freedom gets. Do we have any idea what it is?
I remember a slogan of my antiwar-movement youth: Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity. Ends don’t justify means; means generate, or at least strongly shape, their own ends. How does a huge hierarchical organization based on following orders create freedom?
My father fought in World War II, in North Africa and Italy. He rarely talked about it. We both read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 around the same time, when I was in high school, and he said that described his war experience better than anything else he’d ever read. He didn’t join the American Legion or the VFW. I think he loved his freedom as much as anybody, and made good use of it, but he never, ever would have put one of those bumper stickers on his car.
My uncle Neville, not quite a year and a half younger than my father, fought in that “good war” too and came back, well, changed. “Shell-shocked” is the word I grew up with. PTSD wasn’t coined till later, but that’s probably what it was. Today was his birthday. He was born on November 11, 1923, five years to the day after the guns fell silent on the Western Front. Happy birthday, Nev.
I feel exactly the same. My grandfather, my father, and my son-in-law all went to war. When my son-in-law completed his tour in Afghanistan, he chose not to go back (which limits his chances at promotion), and I was so glad to hear that. You all know that the World Bank has reserved some $15 billion to finance a pipeline through Afghanistan to supply Standard Oil in India but first the proposed route has to be stabilized (made politically secure), right? And of course everyone has heard how Standard Oil used the US Air Force (dropping “leftover” bombs after each bombing run) to do its undersea surveying during the Vietnam war (why wait for the invention of sidescan), and once the survey lines were completed, the war was called off. Oh yes, and when it came time to divvy up the underwater drilling concessions among various companies after the war, guess which company “hit the jackpot” so to speak? War is evil on so many levels. Our grandfathers, fathers, and sons or sons-in-law put their lives on the line for ends they may not even be aware of.
I heartily concur.
Thanks, Susanna, especially about Nev.
Marie-Lynn, I logged onto Facebook immediately after posting this blog, and right there at the very top was your post with the photo of your father, expressing the kind of ambivalence I feel about the day. It was so reassuring!
Well said, as usual Susanna. War has become a way to keep the military busy. I love each and every vet who has fought in America’s armed services, unfortunately our government has used them indiscriminately and for this I am sad and angry but grateful there are boys that are still willing to go where they are sent.
As the daughter of a vet as well, I wholeheartedly concur with you, Susanna. Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece. My father remained hawkish for many years, and hated that his daughter had become a hippie pacifist in the 60s. But once he took early retirement from the air force, he began to mellow a little, and years later admitted there might be two sides to the whole Vietnam war thing — though I don’t think he ever came out fully against it…
Marie-Lynn’s song, “Down on the Station,” captures the life of a Royal Canadian Air Force brat. Harrowing stuff. “Daddy, we’re not the enemy.”
You can a hear a bit of it at
It’s track No. 103
I love that song. Haunting. (I may not have the complete MLH solo discography but I think I’ve got most of it — more, more!)