Veterans Day 2015. Blustery and wet on Martha’s Vineyard: the parade was cancelled, and the annual ceremony was moved inside to the VFW hall in Oak Bluffs.
November 11 was my uncle Neville’s birthday. He was a gentle, soft-spoken guy, generous to a fault; an electronics wizard, he made things that would help people out, like the “baby crier,” a device that translated sound into light so deaf parents could “hear” their baby crying.
Nev never married. He lived with his mother, my grandmother, until she died. The family story was that his great love had died, or left him, or something like that. In his generation, there were a lot of such stories circulating about uncles and aunts, great-uncles and great-aunts, whose lifelong marital status was single.
Another family story had it that he was shell-shocked in World War II. Both he and his older brother, my father, went off to war. My father came back, not unscathed, but at least physically and mentally whole. Like so many of his peers, he almost never talked about the war. After I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the first time, I think when I was still in high school, he told me that of all the books he’d read about the war, that one best described his own experiences.
Catch-22, I just learned, was published on November 11, 1961.
At some point, probably when I was a college student organizing against the Vietnam War, it dawned on me that November 11 was both Neville’s birthday and Veterans Day. The two have been melded together ever since. Every year I remember Nev, who died some 25 years ago, but I don’t “celebrate” Veterans Day.
It’s not that I don’t respect those who’ve served in the military. No one had more credibility for me and my antiwar comrades than veterans who had returned from Vietnam, some of whom were still on active duty when they spoke at antiwar meetings and rallies. They had survived what most of us could barely imagine. They made it real for us in ways that the evening news alone could not.
And they were trashed for it, as were just about all of us who fought to end that war, and to end or avoid subsequent wars. Those years introduced me to the mindless, or maybe not so mindless, viciousness of “support our troops” sloganeering. Then, as in every war the U.S. has been involved in since, “support our troops” comes with a powerful subtext: “Criticizing the war doesn’t support the troops, so don’t even think about it.” When I see one of those bumper stickers that says “If you love your freedom, thank a vet,” I always wonder what they mean by “freedom”: the freedom to STFU and “support our troops”?
My father’s war, the war my uncle came home shell-shocked from, was the “good war,” the one where we really were fighting for freedom. Subsequent wars have been ethically and politically dubious, but how could fighting Hitler have been anything but good?
Wars don’t come out of nowhere. Generals and politicians don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, nice day for a war! Let’s do it!” Hitler didn’t come out of nowhere either. Was Hitler inevitable? Trace the threads back in time and soon enough you’ll come to the punitive reparations forced on Germany by the treaties that ended (hah!) the First World War. Economic havoc resulted, the Weimar government took the fall, and the Nazi movement took root and grew. Would Hitler have come to power if he hadn’t had that havoc to capitalize on? We’ll never know, but I attach a mental asterisk to “the good war” whenever I hear the phrase.
So when Veterans Day rolls around, I remember my uncle Neville, the terrible cost of war, and the ease with which we use platitudes like “support our troops” and “if you love your freedom, thank a vet” to silence others and avoid thinking too hard about any of it. “If you love your freedom, use it,” say I. “If you don’t, you’ll lose it, not because someone snatches it away from you but because freedom takes practice, ongoing, never-ending practice.”
I blogged about Veterans Day four years ago. Uncle Nev’s in that one too.
Two powerful songs for Veterans Day:
My father was a WW II vet and a vehement opponent of the Vietnam war even though he was an enlisted man in the army from 1944 until 1969. He was opposed to our invasion of Iraq, too, although he supported the first Gulf war and military intervention in Afghanistan. I cannot stand the knee-jerk patriots who think that military personnel are mindless ‘bots who do their leaders’ bidding without thoughts or opinions of their own and who need the citizenry they serve to be equally mindless “supporters” of whatever the daily dish hands down. Duty means you suck it up and follow lawful orders. It doesn’t mean you stop thinking for yourself.
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So well said. Thank you, Nora. I recently read Emma Sky’s The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. It’s an important, eye-opening book in so many ways. She, a British civilian fluent in Arabic and with extensive experience in the Middle East, became the political adviser to several U.S. generals in Iraq. She shows the courage, intelligence, and dedication that went into trying to follow those lawful orders — orders that were often formulated by civilian leaders with an at best imperfect understanding of what was going on. It’s a reminder that our duty as civilians in a country where the government is supposed to be accountable to the citizenry is to bring pressure to bear on those issuing the orders. “Support our troops” and the often equally simplistic “bring them home” aren’t enough.
You write with the right mix of emotion and lucidity about war and Veterans Day. I agree with you on every point. I am too young for the Vietnam War but do know a lot about WWII because I grew up in Normandy, France. It is always with great respect that I pay tribute to the men (There are now very few still alive) who fought on my native land for the freedom I got to enjoy.
But I agree that wars don’t happen overnight. We should never watch on the other side and be surprised. Great post, Susanna.
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Evelyne, thanks for pointing this out. The U.S. experience was so different. There hasn’t been a war fought on U.S. soil since the Civil War. After the Secon World War (and the First as well), U.S. and Canadian troops could come home and leave the physical and economic devastation behind. They didn’t have firsthand experience of Nazi rule or Nazi occupation. At the same time, they’d endured and seen terrible things, things they had no words for and things their friends and family couldn’t understand and maybe didn’t want to hear.
After 9/11 the worst hysteria, the persecution and even killing of anyone who “looked Muslim,” didn’t happen in New York or Washington, where the devastation was visible and had to be dealt with every day. It happened hundreds and thousands of miles away. I think distance, geographical and/or temporal, encourages the slogans about fighting for freedom and “support our troops.” Dealing with the day-to-day realities leaves less energy for rhetorical excess.
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perfect. LOVE love love your posts………but this one especially. well written, well said. THANK YOU!!!
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Well said, Susanna……
Of course Veterans Day is not about the war it is about the soldier. Those individuals who were called by their country, for whatever reason, and responded with courage and valor. God Bless the Veteran.