Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Feeling a little ambivalent about Veterans Day

The old uniforms are back in the closets this morning; the medals have been returned to the display cases. The banks and courts are open again.

Maybe -- now -- I can carefully, cautiously share a little of my unease with the Veterans Day celebrations of all things military now just past.

It's not that I don't support the military. I respect those who have put on the uniform, especially in these last several decades when military service has been entirely optional.

We were in the transition to the volunteer military when I came of age. I have a draft card somewhere in the house -- un-singed, I assure you. Without looking it up, I think the last draft lottery (from which no one was actually taken) was conducted the year I turned 17. I think the year I turned 18 was the first year that the lottery was suspended. I know Saigon fell a month after my 18th birthday.

But I am old enough to have imbibed the mindset of the vast majority in those unhappy days: If called, I would not have been thrilled, but I would have reported. Whatever you kids may think you've learned from the TV and movies of the period, not everyone hightailed it to Canada to avoid the draft and, really, very few seriously considered it. Did young men with low draft numbers enlist in the National Guard in order to avoid a possible summons to the infantry? You betcha. Did young men prolong their college deferments as long as possible? Oh, certainly.

Most people were not excited at the prospect of entering the military in the early 1970s. But I don't think that this sentiment was unique to the Vietnam Era. There's an old Daffy Duck cartoon in my collection, set in World War II, the so-called "Good War." Daffy is living in middle class comfort, listening to the war news on the radio, waving the flag and singing patriotic songs.

Image from Draftee Daffy obtained from Wikipedia.
Then Daffy gets his notice from the Draft Board. The rest of Draftee Daffy (1945) is about Daffy's ultimately futile efforts to evade the comical little man from the Draft Board. But Warner Brothers was not trying to stir up anti-war sentiment in 1945. The humor comes from Daffy's reluctance to back up his patriotic fervor with real, personal commitment. Audiences had to understand and identify with Daffy's attitude or they would not have laughed. The cartoon could not have been made.

Today, nobody has to back up nothin'. Our endless wars are fought with proxies. Men who maxed out their deferments or sought shelter in the National Guard ("protecting Oak Street Beach from invasion by godless Canadians," as one of my ex-partners put it) got us into Iraq and Afghanistan and may yet get us into Iran. And we'll continue to yo-yo young men and women out of their daily lives (no hiding in the National Guard for this generation -- and, too often, no armor or training either) and thrust them into harms' way. But we'll gush over our men and women in service at sporting events and on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and think that makes it all OK.

But it doesn't, does it?

There have always been miscreants in the military, bullies, cowards, even outright thieves. Notwithstanding all the sentimental schmaltz on TV this weekend, not everyone who served was Sgt. York; some were Sgt. Bilko. When the all-volunteer military came in, it was believed that the general, overall quality of America's fighting forces would improve. Malcontent civilians would be replaced by persons hoping to fight. But even if we assume that this was true, it must also be agreed that there is a toll, a price to be paid, when our soldiers are subjected to deployment after deployment, in hot spot after hot spot, in endless wars where there are no front lines and where any civilian man, woman or child may be out for blood.

The cracks are beginning to show. In late September the U.S. Army observed a stand down day to focus on the problem of soldiers committing suicide. Think about that: There have been record numbers of suicides among active duty soldiers.

It is expected that the defense offered on behalf of the sergeant now facing a preliminary hearing in Washington State, charged with the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, many of them children, will be that he was suffering from PTSD at the time of the massacre, caused by a prior concussive head injury sustained in Iraq. In fact, the sergeant was apparently on his fourth war zone deployment when the massacre took place (the other three being to Iraq). Each deployment lasts approximately a year. (Let's put that in perspective: A soldier who came ashore in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, would have been in combat for only 11 months before V-E Day in May 1945.)

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a brigadier general is now on trial on sex crime charges. The general -- while on deployment in Afghanistan, mind you -- allegedly demanded nude pictures from female subordinates. Other charges faced by this officer include "forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct and adultery, which is a crime under the military justice system."

And, of course, try and make it through today without hearing more lurid innuendo concerning David Petraeus (the former CIA Director), or his mistress, or the woman allegedly threatened by Petraeus's mistress, or the Marine four star general who succeeded Petraeus in overall command of Iraq and Afghanistan -- and who now is being questioned about thousands of allegedly inappropriate emails to the second woman.

The stress and strain of 11 years of unrelenting war on all ranks can not be dissipated by staging college basketball games on the deck of a retired aircraft carrier or at an American airbase in Germany. Hugging vets or thanking them for their service is nice, but it won't make anyone's limbs grow back or even make the nightmares go away.

We have these lovely Veterans Day ceremonies and we think we are then entitled to pretend that everything is fine. We've done our part. But it's not fine. We haven't done our part. Thus my discomfort. We either have to have some peace for our warfighters or start spreading the burden of service around.

All I am saying... is give peace a chance.

1 comment:

Rob said...

I have a mixed bag of thoughts on this too...

Dad was a Navy man back about the time I was born. My brother is a retired Airman. I never served, but I certainly respect those who have and do.

And it is with that respect that I believe war has grown entirely too easy. Drones and satellites and all the other whiz-bangery makes it almost game-like for those in power to wield their swords. People forget that battles happen on the ground, not from lower orbit. And that means men and women in harms way - physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Perhaps it should be a policy that you can't hold any seat in D.C. unless you have an immediate family member who serves (or has served) in the military. That might pull these ivory tower armchair warriors back into a little bit of the unpleasant, human realities of their decisions.