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.