Seven 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.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?
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....
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. Last year we 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 is too high (10%, much higher than non-vets); too many of them have to wait more than two weeks for mental health appointments; and their suicide rate is appallingly high, more than 6,500 a year).
And still we 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; and Steven Vincent Benet's Minor Litany.
This year I offer you Dreamers by Siegfried Sassoon:
Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.