As Kurt Vonnegut remarked,
Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not. So I will throw Veterans' Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don't want to throw away any sacred things.Ten 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; months of waiting for VA treatment - in fact, some even die first; an epidemic of suicide; veterans deported after honorable service; and in this year's scandal, a man running for president scammed veterans' charities out of millions of promised donations. 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....
What's more, we keep starting wars of choice and sending people to fight them. I know, I know: Freedom isn't free. No more it is, but let's stop pretending that any war we've fought since WWII was actually about our freedom. The president says he won't send troops to fight - "no boots on the ground" - but thousands of American soldiers are there now, and more are on the way. And there are no signs of it stopping, despite calls to break up NATO (like that will help); calls to defeat ISIS are as strong or stronger.
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 Soldier 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 free dinners and tire deals, 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: Nicht Neues im Westen by Tom Greening;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; Steven Vincent Benet's Minor Litany; and Dreamers by Siegfried Sassoon.
This year I offer you Bernie Bruen's To a Young Galahad (Sir Galahad being one of several supply ships bombed during the Falklands war):
To a Young Galahad - Thirty Years on
They brought their screens and smoke machines,
An HD camera and a Dolby mike
And, with a wooden bomb, a working fuze,
Selective lighting and some drapes,
Transformed my kitchen to a bombed-out ship
And said, “Tell us again what it was like.”
I told them of the Galahad,
Of how we saved her that first, frightful night
When, from an acid-saturated wreck
That burned the clothing from our skin,
We worked to free a sleeping bomb and so
Return her life, so nearly brought to waste.
I told them of the Lancelot,
Of how we cut apart her gangways, worked
The night, and through the raids that terrorised
The day, to lift and shift and heave
And haul a dormant bomb from deep within
Until we could return her to the Fleet.
I told them, then, about Bluff Cove;
Of how we battled with the Tristram blaze,
The four of us, to save her too - too late -
And blasted off her after door
So they could salvage shells and mortar-bombs,
Munitions for the hungry Stanley guns.
And then again of Galahad
Who rocked and burned a pall of blackened flame
That rose from glowing bulkheads, blistered decks,
A signal column, dark above;
And you - for whom we could do nothing more
Than find a piece of canvas for a shroud.
Thirty years too late, unbidden,
Unexpected, unashamed, with sudden
Overflowing eyes, my message faltered;
For, though you never were forgot,
You're long past due those tears I shed for you;
As, in bewilderment, I turned away - and so did they.