During the current infantile government shutdown, nothing is more likely to make the evening news than an army of World War II veterans storming their memorial in Washington, DC, crushing the barricades with their wheelchairs while assisted by the non-paid, non-working monument police and Harvard-educated clown senator Ted Cruz, blindly participating in his self-scripted morality play shut down before it even opened.
Don’t get me wrong. If I had been in DC at the time, I would have moved the barricades myself. I object to crass politicians of all stripes using aging veterans for their scripted talking points. I’m reminded of the bumper stickers during the Iraq War that encouraged us to support our troops. As fewer Americans serve in the military—just 1%, I think—the military is considered out there, doing the country’s dirty work, and though “I” probably wouldn’t encourage my daughter or son to serve, I can honor those that do, even in some abstract, knee-jerk kind of way. I can protest against death benefits being denied veterans due to the Sequester. And politicians can take credit for making sure the military gets paid during the self-inflicted Washington insanity, thus ginning up their patriotism.
Serving in the military was one of the most important decisions of my life and probably had a more lasting effect on my character, discipline and, as an immigrant, appreciation for America than my time in college and graduate school. I was at sea for four years, mainly in Asia with a number of stints in the Tonkin Gulf. I had a number of close calls, but that was part of the enlistment compact. No big deal. As any veteran will tell you, the military remains in the bones for a lifetime. It is not unusual for veterans, whatever the severity of their service, to remain quiet for a lifetime. It’s taken me decades to write my first book about my time at sea.
It is not likely that America will go back to the draft nor should it, considering the inequities of that time. But we should at least consider some form of national service, if only to get our collective hands dirty. If not, then let’s treat our military as American citizens and let them, active or retired, suffer the same consequences of living in this imperfect county that at the moment seems to be run by clowns. Let’s not elevate our military, not because we don’t hold them in high esteem, but because that very act of elevation, placing them up and “out there” resolves us from understanding of what it’s like to serve this country and what it means for us to “go to war,” as we seem to have been doing since I arrived in America.
Let’s not elevate our military, not because we do not honor them, but because that often absolves us of the responsibility of looking closely at what President Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex more than a half-century ago. The danger that Eisenhower, a warrior himself who played down his Word War II heroics, warned us about is much more pronounced today with America spending more on armaments than the next ten countries combined. We have outsourced our wars to the 1% and the thousands of civilians—usually ex-military, who continue to fight our wars abroad, without necessarily adhering to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And have we not noticed at home the militarization of our neighborhoods with full-fledged SWAT teams in more than 100 communities in the US, courtesy of the War on Terror funds?
Let’s not elevate our military, not because we do not remember the price they paid, but because that righteous act might blind us to “first causes” and the fact that our most recent wars, including Vietnam and Iraq, were based on lies. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a complete fabrication. The weapons of mass destruction in Iraq quickly became a late-night television joke. Some joke. Our men and women have borne the brunt of this folly that has never been fully adjudicated in the public or political arena.
When we elevate our military, let it be with full knowledge of past wars, the political mendacity that is disguised as patriotism, and the industrial gun-runners who are in the business of supporting wars as free market enterprise. As always, follow the money.
We honor our military, living and dead, by not letting our service men and women be put in harm’s way to satisfy an itch of mainly aging white politicians who want to shore up their base or to satisfy their fantasies by engaging in some martial theatrics. “All wars are boyish,” Herman Melville said. Think Syria, Korea, and Iran.
We honor our military, living and dead, by slowing down the martial rhetoric, cooling the bombast, and insisting of our representatives that any future war or military action will be decided in full daylight with everyone, including the lobbyists, in plain sight.
We honor our military, living and dead, by insisting that our churches and synagogues that are often quiet on these matters, step front-and-center, explaining to their respective congregations what exactly constitutes just and unjust wars. And why a sacred text can be as bellicose as a political speech.
The late psychologist James Hillman writes that “war is not a product of reason and does not yield to reason.” As a student of war, I agree with him. So we honor our military, living and dead, by accepting war in all its “unreason,” and by being aware of the speciousness of leaders who prattle about “wars to end all wars” and the like. Hillman notes that “Like a manic syndrome, war eventually exhausts itself.”
So we honor our military, living and dead, by accepting war as a manic syndrome that feeds on itself until satiated. The country expressed its exhaustion with war when the drums were beating for Syria. And this exhaustion came from a largely disinterested public, silent for the last decade. Our exhausted military have suffered more directly: PTSD, suicides, displacement and unemployment. Many will suffer for a lifetime.
I honor our military, living and dead, in a Kindle ebook, The Archetype of the Gun, which explores many of the above issues. Our veterans form the centerpiece of this epic poem, this prayer.