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: