Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day

poppiesSix years I wrote a post which began:
It's called "Veterans Day" here in the States - we renamed it, I guess, when it became clear that the War to End War hadn't and wouldn't. So it's Veterans Day, now - not Memorial Day, for the dead, that's in May... now we remember the living.

At least, we say we do. Well, I'm a veteran. I don't want just another day off work with no commitment behind it to actually give a damn about the veterans, especially those who come home from these modern wars all torn up, because medicine can save their bodies, only to find that no one in the government intends to take care of them. Veterans Day is nothing more than automobile sales, and servicemen get a 5% discount!, and wear your uniform, eat free! It's not go to a hospital and see what the price really is; it's not lobby the congress to restore the benefits cut in 1995; it's not give them their meds and counseling on time and affordably; it's not tell the VA to actively take care of vets instead of waiting for them to find out on their own what they're eligible for. And it's most certainly not the government actually giving a damn....
Since then, of course we had the stark proof of that, in the Walter Reed scandal (you do remember that?); we've had "Warriors in Transition" (the catchy new name for wounded soldiers on their way to discharge via the VA and therapy); acres of missing paperwork, "personality disorders" being diagnosed by the dozens so soldiers (and no, I won't capitalize it, we aren't Germans, we don't capitalize ordinary nouns, and this is just another ultimately empty fetishization of the military, like calling them "Wounded Warriors" in ordinary prose) can be kicked out of the army without benefits; National Guardsmen brought back from Iraq after 729 days of active duty - so they don't qualify for the educational benefits that kick in at 730... Need I go on?

We've also had some steps taken in the right direction, of course. As Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Edward Shinseki is trying hard to take care of those who need it most. He's tackling homelessness, and joblessness, among vets; the agency provides much more than medical care now. The VA has made huge strides in the past ten or so years, and is now capable of delivering world-class care, efficiently and more cheaply even than Medicare does. And just this week we, in passing for most of us I expect, rejected the policies that would have privatized the VA, leaving veterans to navigate the private sector with vouchers that would, if experience is any guide, have never paid for enough.

But those problems, and the rest of them, still exist (homeless vets still number around 60,000, their unemployment rate bounces between 6.6% and 8%). And we still tell ourselves that we're honoring veterans by what are, in the end, gestures only.

Today is Veterans Day. It's not Memorial Day. It's a day to honestly assess the price of the war - any war - to those who fight it and come home, and to promise ourselves to do the right thing by them. Because it is the right thing. Because we owe it to them. Because we sent them into harm's way, and they were harmed (one way or another, they were harmed, war harms everyone it touches). As I said before,
We don't need people paying lip service to vets while ignoring them in the VA hospitals or on the street corners. We don't need to mythologize veterans, turn them into some great symbol of our nation's righteous aggression while we forget their humanity. We don't need a holiday that glorifies war by glorifying soldiers.
Let's stop capitalizing Solider and Wounded Warrior and Troop - and stop capitalizing on them, too. Let's stop the relentless glorification of the figure of the soldier, and start actually caring about them. Let's stop Supporting the Troops with magnets and signs, and start some actual damned support - with money, first of all, money and beds and hospitals and benefits that actually are.

Let's save the worship for Memorial Day. Today's for the ones who are still alive, and most of all for the ones who still need us.

I've offered a number of poems for today: 1916 seen from 1921 by Edmund Blunden; Siegfried Sassoon's Aftermath (written a year after WWI); Li Po's Nefarious War, translated from the Chinese by Shigeyoshi Obata (with its key line: The long, long war goes on ten thousand miles from home. That's the kind of war we can pretend is going well, because we can't see it or its fighters.); The Next War by Robert Graves; and a pair of short poems by Carl Sandburg, written during WWI: Iron and Grass; Wilfred Owens's great Dulce et Decorum Est

This year I offer you Stephen Vincent Benét's Minor Litany:

This being a time confused and with few clear stars,
Either private ones or public,
Out of its darkness I make a litany
For the lost, for the half-lost, for the desperate,
For all of those who suffer, not in the flesh.
I will say their name, but not yet.
                                              This is for those
Who talk to the bearded man in the quiet office,
Sensibly, calmly, explaining just how it was,
And suddenly burst into noisy, quacking tears;
For those who live through the party, wishing for death;
For those who take the sensible country walks,
Wondering if people stare;
For those who try to hook rugs in the big, bright room
And do it badly and are pleased with the praise;
For the night and the fear and the demons of the night;
For the lying back on the couch and the wincing talk.

This is for those who work and those who may not,
For those who suddenly come to a locked door,
And the work falls out of their hands;
For those who step off the pavement into hell,
Having not observed the red light and the warning signals
Because they were busy or ignorant or proud.

This is for those who are bound in the paper chains
That are stronger than links of iron; this is for those
Who each day heave the papier-mache rock
Up the huge and burning hill,
And there is no rock and no hill, but they do not know it.

This is for those who wait till six for the drink,
Till eleven for the tablet;
And for those who cannot wait but go to the darkness;
And for those who long for the darkness but do not go,
Who walk to the window and see the body falling,
Hear the thud of air in the ears,
And then turn back to the room and sit down again,
None having observed the occurrence but themselves.

Christ, have mercy upon us.
Freud, have mercy upon us.
Life, have mercy upon us.

This is for those
Who painfully haul the dark fish out of the dark,
The child’s old nightmare, embalmed in its own pain,
And, after that, get well or do not get well,
But do not forget the sulphur in the mouth
Or the time when the world was different, not for a while.
And for those also, the veterans
Of another kind of war,
Who say “No thanks” to the cocktails, who say “No thanks.
Well, yes, give me Coca-Cola” with the trained smile,
Those who hid the bottles so cleverly in the trunk,
Who bribed the attendant, who promised to be good,
Who woke in the dirty bed in the unknown town.
They are cured, now, very much cured.
They are tanned and fine. Their eyes are their only scars.

This is for those with the light white scars on the wrists,
Who remember the smell of gas and the vomiting,
And it meant little and it is a well-known symptom
And they were always careful to phone, before.
Nevertheless, they remember.
                                        This is for those
Who heard the music suddenly get too loud,
Who could not alter the fancy when it came.

Chloral, have mercy upon us.
Amytal, have mercy upon us.
Nembutal, have mercy upon us.

This occurs more or less than it did in the past times.
There are statistics. There are no real statistics.
There is also no heroism. There is merely
Fatigue, pain, great confusion, sometimes recovery.

The name, as you know, is Legion.
What’s your name, friend? Where are you from and how did you get here?
The name is Legion. It’s Legion in the case history.
Friends, Romans, countrymen,
Mr. and Mrs. Legion is the name.

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At 1:19 PM, November 11, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Did you know that Benet was an Army brat? Among his childhood peregrinations, before being sent off to boarding school at age 10, he lived a few years in my dad's hometown while his father was commanding officer of the Army arsenal there (I doubt my dad's older brothers knew Stephen, although the eldest was only a year younger). See:

At 3:26 PM, November 11, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

I did not. And you should claim your bros and SVB were BFFs!

I can't believe I wrote that.

At 3:33 PM, November 11, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

It was my dad's eldest brother, not mine! I seem to recall that they were all in the 1910 US Census enumeration when I was researching the town's Portuguese population trends over the decades for a paper.

At 4:50 PM, November 11, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Yes, of course your dad... but that makes it easier to claim!


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