A veteran laments Veterans Day
On the autumn day of Nov. 11, 1918, the armistice in the first World War took effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Acting Governor Maurice Sullivan of Nevada declared a public holiday, and hundreds gathered in the streets of Reno to celebrate and burn Kaiser Wilhelm in effigy. The relief of peace after a terrible, drawn out war that had nearly been lost was palpable. That was armistice. A year later came Armistice Day.
A few decades later, when another Nevada soldier and I were in D.C. protesting—along with numerous other soldiers—in the aftermath of the attack on Cambodia and the killings at Kent State, we were passing the Army Navy Club at 17th and I streets, and we saw people drinking atop the 12-story building. I heard a protester yell up to them, “The army’s come over to our side.”
One of the things I really hated about my service years was the way politicians and other war supporters constantly assumed to speak for “our troops.” So the large number of antiwar soldiers was a source of comfort to me when I was in the service.
A few years later, when I was out, a woman who was an American Legion “auxiliary” official asked me why Vietnam veterans seemed reluctant to join the established veterans’ organizations. I wasn’t a Vietnam vet. I was a Vietnam era vet who was spared duty in that unfortunate country, spending my overseas time in Europe. But I told her servicepeople had been split by the war, some traditionalists following what the government wanted without question, others deeply troubled by what our government did. The latter group wanted no part of those veterans’ groups that always seemed to be calling for more war. (Just 37 days after the Korean war armistice, the American Legion had called for another Korean war if those poor people did not toe our line.)
James Michener once wrote that he was surprised the nation got through Korea without the kind of disruption Vietnam saw. But Vietnam was a bridge too far for many of us. That split we saw in our own generation kept showing up, with PR people like Merrie Spaeth exploiting it by creating the Swift Boat Veterans for “Truth” and pitting them against the rest of us.
Spaeth and others created a climate in which veterans who opposed the war were mistreated when they came home, along with other protesters who were not veterans. In Greeley, Colorado, Vietnam veterans were barred from a Veteran’s Day parade in 1972. In Reno, pro-war veterans prevented antiwar veterans from riding on a Harold’s Club float, and the club let it happen.
If Vietnam was a bridge too far, it is difficult to know what today is. Today’s wars have become known among vets as the forever wars (see Harper’s, “Combat high,” June 2018), and keeping track of them is impossible for citizens. When a squad of U.S. soldiers was killed in Niger, U.S. senators like Bob Casey, Lindsey Graham and Charles Schumer said they didn’t know there were troops there. So how can citizens be expected to know?
The Pentagon says it keeps Congress informed, and it no doubt does, the same way it keeps the public informed—using incomprehensible jargon and putting the information where it’s not easily located. Hedrick Smith, for his book Who Stole the American Dream? found the information in a document with the unilluminating title of Base Structure Report. It tells the number of servicepeople, the number of bases (more than 1,100), the facilities on those bases (there are 172 golf courses). I looked at that document for a story earlier this year, and it took me weeks to decipher what I was seeing.
And it was difficult not to recall that saying, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
There are now so many small wars that they now have their own publication, Small Wars Journal, where Erik Goepner of the Cato Institute recently wrote, “America’s war on terror has now entered its seventeenth year. The U.S. has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and conducted military operations in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and the Philippines. More recently, four military members died in Niger during an ambush, suggesting the war on terror continues to widen. The war has cost the lives of nearly 7,000 service members and between $1.8 and $4 trillion. Despite the heavy toll in blood and treasure, most Americans seem content for the war to continue.” It may be a reach to classify this war as small.
Not only do we not know how many wars we are now fighting, none of them are declared.
If we’re ever to get our warmaking machine back under control, we could start by using the language more honestly. Armistice Day was changed to Veteran’s Day by Congress in 1954, the same Congress that shoehorned “under God” into Francis Bellamy’s pledge of allegiance. (Imagine Congress using legislation to alter the language of “Amazing Grace.") Thus, warriors were elevated over peace. The 1949 Congress shut down the War Department and created the Defense Department, an entity that has become accomplished in fighting non-defensive wars. Reversing both those changes would start the process of honesty.
Army Ranger Rory Fanning, who served two deployments in Afghanistan and walked across the United States raising funds for the Pat Tillman Foundation, wrote:
“In place of what had been a celebration of peace, Congress instituted an annual veneration of those who fought in war. America would ever after celebrate not the beauty of peace, but its purveyors of state violence in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, Kosovo, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and more. Governments had meant to do the opposite in 1919: if you go back and read the newspapers of the time closely enough, you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief and jubilation on the first Armistice Day. Millions celebrated peace and renounced war on that November day, a year after the violence in Europe had ended: after the mustard gas stopped burning off soldiers’ skin; after Gatling guns stopped mowing down young boys from mostly poor and working class families; after fighter planes stopped streaking the sky; and after bloody bayonets were wiped clean. In the wake of so much carnage, it was then clear to millions of people that wars were not about valour or romantic ideals, but about empire, which benefits a few at the expense of many.”
I love autumn, but Nov. 11 is always melancholy. Each year, a few communities around the country mark Armistice Day instead of Veterans Day. Silver City, Nevada, is one of them, and I occasionally attend there.