I bristle at most holidays, but Veterans Day has a special place in my mind. I’m not at all bothered by paying tribute to our veterans, but this holiday has a strong jingoist feel to it. Here in the United States, being against war is generally seen as being against the soldiers who we have do our dirty work. But that’s just a con. In general, people don’t like wars. So by grafting “support the war” onto “support the troops” our war mongers can get a pass.
Remember when Donald Rumsfeld said, “You go to war with the army you have — not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time”? The implication there was that the Iraq War was existential. We had to go war right then. Of course, missing from this analysis was the six months that the administration used for a propaganda campaign to goose up support for that war. Where exactly was the support for the troops then?
Rumsfeld was answering a question from Army Specialist Thomas Wilson, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles? And why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” But in the American psyche, support for the troops is putting a yellow ribbon on your SUV and never questioning the justice or advisability for the war. “America right or wrong!”
Last year, when writing about Veterans Day, I noted that most of our wars were useless and this does not reflect on the men who fight them, “It is no disrespect to Achilles and Hector to note that the Trojan War was useless and tragic.” But useless wars are a reflection on those who start them and those who sell them.
Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day — a celebration of the end of the very useless World War I. It was specifically intended to mark that war and the roughly twenty million who had died fighting it. At the end of World War II, Armistice Day was expanded to celebrate all veterans and the day was changed officially to Veterans Day in 1954 — the first one was 60 years ago today.
It is a technical distinction, but an important one. Armistice Day was always about veterans — specially dead veterans. But it called to mind the end of war — a great gift to soldiers everywhere. Veterans Day flips this on its head. It implies that veterans are a good thing to have. “Let’s make some more veterans!” To me the day is not about celebrating veterans, but of asking forgiveness. Does anyone think it was right to draft young men and have them die for the sake of World War I? Such a distinction is the difference between jingoistic “America, hell yeah!” and, as Woodrow Wilson said when first celebrating Armistice Day, an occasion of “solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service.”
I would think differently if something had changed. We can celebrate past wars and the people who fought in them. My concern is that Veterans Day is used to push casual war as an acceptable practice. Now the United States is in perpetual war. We might as well change Veterans Day to Soldier Day, for all the difference it makes. Many of the founders of this country were concerned about having a standing army. I wonder what they would think of us today with our standing wars.
So celebrate Veterans Day. Honor our veterans — living and dead. But don’t lose sight of reality. There are no “bloody good wars” — just bloody wars.