No More Veterans Days

Here’s an idea: let’s drop Veterans Day.  And while we’re at it, let’s drop Memorial Day too.  I can think of a lot of other holidays we should cut, but let’s start with those two for now.

We’ll take the money saved from forgoing these days off (think of the regained productivity and tax revenue!) and put it toward better hospitals and programs for veterans.  Instead of wasting energy waving flags made in China, let’s see if we can actually help those to whom we supposedly feel so much gratitude.

And while we’re at it, let’s meditate on why we celebrated Veterans and Memorial Days in the first place.  Was it to honor soldiers who defended our freedom?  If that’s the case, think of most, perhaps all, of the wars this country has waged.  Did we need to slaughter over three million Vietnamese so you and I could vote, buy handguns, and download porn?  Which rights were defended when A-bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  How did Mexico, Spain, North Korea, Granada, ad nauseam threaten our liberty?   Could it be that “rights” is just a codeword for imperialism and hegemony?  Is the issue “freedom” or “free markets”?  (Many Americans don’t know the difference.)  And let’s not forget the how the military has been used against Americans themselves, particularly, but not exclusively, the First Americans.

Why are soldiers so esteemed?  Because they serve the State.  Through intimidation and violence, they do its dirty work.  To the State, the soldier is the perfect citizen.  He puts following orders above basic self-interest (i.e., self-preservation).  There’s a reason there’s no “Organizer Day,” “Heretic Holiday,” or “Scientist Appreciation Week.”

But the fighting man isn’t an automaton.  No matter how much his mind is fucked with, he’s still making decisions.  As Joel Stein wrote in his infamous “Warriors and wusses” editorial

[B]laming the president is a little too easy. The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not.  An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying. 

Remember what we said about “only following orders”?

Our soldiers, like all troops, were not, are not, and will never be angels.  The soldiers of yesterday, today, and tomorrow weren’t, aren’t, and will never be any more enlightened than the average schmuck.  Some soldiers are quite brave, and that’s admirable.  But bravery doesn’t equate to moral superiority.  Those who have fought and are fighting against American soldiers are also often very brave, regardless how you feel about their causes (or how you misunderstand them).  Frequently those who war against the U.S. are poorly equipped and trained.  It takes a lot of guts to go up against a military with nearly limitless resources.  And yes, that nod of respect extends to the Confederacy, the Axis forces, and al-Queda.

Bravery comes in many forms.  A worker organizing a union under the threat of the boss’ goons, a black woman sitting at a “Whites Only” lunch counter, or a writer defending a dangerously unpopular position can be just as lionhearted as an infantryman in combat.

Some soldiers aren’t especially brave, nor does their work demand bravery.  To paraphrase Ward Churchill, sometimes it’s pushing buttons in air-conditioned, sterile rooms, no different than playing videogames.  Even when they’re in combat, American soldiers enjoy overwhelming force over their enemies.  How is dropping bombs on civilians courageous?

Some soldiers are craven sadists.  Some just do it because it’s a job.  Because they were unlucky enough to get drafted.  Because bullying, raping, and killing is fun.

The fact is, Zell Miller’s remarks at the 2004 Republican Convention were pure bullshit. 

For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag who gives that protester the freedom to abuse and burn that flag.

No. 

No.

No.

No one gave us these rights.  The idea of someone bestowing a right is medieval.  The Founding Fathers saw rights “as inalienable.”  These freedoms are defended everyday when citizens—reporters, poets, agitators, and protesters—use them, particularly when they use them in ways that displease the majority.

Some might say that our soldiers fought against against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan to keep us free.  Similarly, they’d claim we engaged in proxy wars with the Soviet Union to perserve our liberty.  Again, bullshit.  None of those countries had any more hope, much less plans, to invade Main Street than Vietnam or Cambodia.  Did some good come of fighting the forces of totalitarianism?  Certainly, although I wonder if the fascist and Marxist juggernauts would’ve eventually imploded and collapsed on their own, weighed down by paranoia, xenophobia, and the expense of vast arsenals.  (Sound familiar?)

And today’s struggles against the insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan are no different.  I want to retch whenever I hear someone say “we’re got to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”  No, the violence we sow there we reap here.

The military doesn’t defend freedom; it threatens it.  Have you ever heard of an army used to encourage debate and dissent?  When it’s time to organize a coup d’etat, they don’t call up milkmen, sports writers, or bookkeepers.

“Support the troops.”  That’s another way saying don’t criticize them.  Why?  Through my tax dollars I pay them. Imagine a company where the boss can only praise his employees.  I want that job.  You’ll hear that protest is bad for the troops’ morale.  Excellent!  With enough rallies and demonstrations perhaps they’ll get really sad and desert.  Then we won’t have to pay for their idiotic crusades anymore.  “Support the troops” is another way of saying “Don’t question the State.”

When did soliders become faultless, selfless superheroes?  Are we engaged in an adult discourse or a Marvel comic?

I’ve never fought in a war and I don’t plan to.  At this point, I’m far too old for it anyway, thank God.  But let’s hear from an actual veteran.  Here’s Howard Zinn, historian and author of A People’s History of the United States:

Let’s go back to the beginning of Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day, because at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end…  Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches…  Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism.  As a combat veteran myself, of a “good war,” against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.

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4 Responses to “No More Veterans Days”

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  2. Sir. Your argument is very elegantly stated. It inspires but one question from me, based both in a true desire to know the answer and on my own life experiences to this point:

    What of either the career officer or the National Guardsman who is otherwise occupied in this society but suddenly finds himself an active soldier instead? I have known at least a couple of each and found them to be very good men, perhaps even noble.

    Should such men not be honored in some fashion? Surely they are providing a service to us at some (at least potential) expense to themselves. Where does the line between a tool and its wielder truly exist? Soldiers don’t start wars, politicians do.

    ‘Just like witches at black masses’

  3. DB_Pub says:

    I’ve no doubt there are many in the armed forces who are, as you say, noble. But I wonder about putting their service above other professions that contribute to society. Teachers, firemen, and nurses make tremendous sacrifices and take great risks to serve us: why don’t they have holidays in their honor?

    I think it’s unhealthy to heap unquestioning praise on soldiers. When it comes to human beings, the role of tool doesn’t absolve one of responsibility. Just because a man signs up with the best of intentions doesn’t mean he’s any less of an active participant in imperialism and unprovoked aggression than the warmongering politician. In some ways he’s even more responsible: the soldier drives the tank, pulls the trigger, presses the button. And should the considerable risk they take in our name silence criticism? I didn’t ask anyone to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. I don’t see their work as a service to me or the country. It’s mischief.

    Yes, soldiers don’t start wars, but they are inarguably enablers. No soldiers, no wars. I can’t think of a society with a huge military that’s never constantly been at conflict. By joining the army, you add fuel to the war machine. I wonder about the distance we put between soldiers and the decision-makers. Soldiers might feel ambivalent about war, but without it they’d be looking for work in a hurry.

    Our need to honor soldiers no doubt goes reaches back to humanity’s earliest days. When resources were so limited that outsiders would kill to get what you had, warriors were as essential as food and shelter. Without them, there’d be none of the other. Later, as I wrote in the post, soldiers became the embodiment of the perfect citizen. Is it healthy to carry these notions into a new millennium, a time when now more than ever we need critical thinking, skepticism, and reason? An age when sentimentality, jingoism, and aggression are more dangerous than ever? We need fewer martyrs and more heretics.

    I’ll end with a confession. Imagining soldiers on parade, a word forms in my mind: “resentment.” I resent the respect they get. Much of that resentment goes back to what I’ve said above and in my original post. But it’s also that I’m a middle-aged man and I’ve never ever taken the risks seized by a soldier. Consequently, I’ve never reaped the rewards and recognition.

    You can’t help but respect a solider: he’s fit, disciplined, and accomplished. He’s a part of a long tradition. On top of that, he’s got a gun.

  4. I agree a disconnect exists between the amount of reverence placed on our servicemen and that given to the oft maligned cop, disrespected teacher, taken-for-granted fireman, or just plain not-thought-of EMT.

    I also agree that there is some historical resonance to the ‘big army leads to chronic conflict’ point. you can’t just leave the damn thing sitting on the shelf for pete’s sake! gotsta use some of them munitions so as you can buy more and keep your brother rolling in whores. I do, however, wonder if the PRC’s ‘Red Army’ is not an exception to this rule….Short of it’s sensational deployment in Tiananmen, I don’t recall seeing a Chinese bullet fly in my lifetime.

    Finally, I guess what I was really getting at was this….Yes, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other examples have been examples of misusing the tool. I still, however, have a hard time imagining that the tool itself inherently can’t or won’t eventually serve the purpose for which, as you point out, it was originally built — to preserve our very lives.

    Maybe my years as a child romantacizing the machines of WWII in particular have penetrated deeper than I know….

    But then again, maybe not. For I can in clear conscience and with enthusiasm echo your call to arms:

    HERESY NOW!!!

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